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What is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common sexually transmitted virus. Over 80% of Canadians will have at least one HPV infection during their lifetime. HPV is spread easily through past or current sexual contact including oral, genital and/or rectal skin-to-skin contact, or sex with sex toys. Most people show no symptoms of the virus and their body’s immune system will clear the infection. There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some types of HPV cause genital warts. Others may cause abnormal cervical changes including cervical cancer. HPV has also been linked to cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat. Most HPV infections will not progress to cancer.

Am I at risk for HPV?

If you have ever had sexual contact, you are at risk for HPV. HPV is easily spread through current or past sexual contact. Sexual contact includes:

  • oral, genital and/or rectal skin-to-skin contact, or
  • sex with sex toys.

HPV can pass from person-to-person regardless of sexual orientation. HPV infection usually has no signs or symptoms. Most HPV infections will disappear on their own (regress). Sometimes HPV can progress, over time, into abnormal cervical changes including cervical cancer. The Pap test can find abnormal cells before they progress into cancer.

Natural History

90% of HPV infections will regress on their own without any intervention within two years. In rare cases, HPV can persist, and over time, develop into cervical cancer.

HPV Progression

What is the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccines provide protection against certain types of HPV that can cause genital warts, cervical cancer, as well as cancers of the mouth, throat, anus, vulva, vagina and penis. If an HPV vaccine is received before sexual contact, it will be almost 100% effective in preventing infection (see table below). Studies show that females who have already been sexually active may also benefit from receiving the vaccine.

There are three HPV vaccines approved for use in Canada:

  HPV types covered Protects against:
Cervarix 16, 18 Over 70% of cervical cancers
Gardasil 4 6, 11, 16, 18 Over 70% of cervical cancers & 90% of genital warts
Gardasil 9 6, 11, 16, 18,
31, 33, 45, 52, 58

90% of cervical cancers & 90% of genital warts

Females who receive the HPV vaccine still need to have regular Pap tests because the HPV vaccines do not protect against all HPV types that can cause cervical cancer.

It’s important to know that:

  • None of the HPV vaccines can be used to treat existing HPV infections.

  • Regular cervical cancer screening is important because HPV vaccines do not protect us from all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.

  • Click to learn more about the HPV vaccine English | French (pdf).

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