A high-risk HPV is a type of human papillomavirus that can cause genital warts and lead to cervical cancer. Low-risk HPV may also cause genital warts, but it generally does not cause the cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer. The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is persistent high-risk HPV (an infection that does not go away).
Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are a group of viruses that are now recognized as one of the major causes of cervical cancer. But there are over 100 different types of HPV, so scientists have separated HPV types into those that are more likely to develop into cancer and those that are less likely. The so-called "high risk" HPV types are more likely to lead to the development of cancer, while "low-risk" viruses rarely develop into cancer.
HPVs are now recognized as the major cause of cervical cancer (see HPV and Cervical Cancer). Cervical cancer affects nearly half a million women each year worldwide. Nearly a quarter of a million women die each year from the disease.
Studies also suggest that HPVs may play a role in cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, and some cancers of the oropharynx (the middle part of the throat that includes the soft palate, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils). Data from several studies also suggest that infection with HPV is a risk factor for penile cancer (cancer of the penis).
The sexually transmitted varieties of high-risk HPV include:
A few others may also be included on this list. These high-risk types of HPV cause growths that are usually flat and nearly invisible, as compared to the warts caused by types HPV-6 and HPV-11.
High-risk HPV viruses may cause cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer over time if these changes are left untreated. In fact, persistent high-risk HPV (an infection that does not go away) is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer (see Cervical Cancer Risk Factors).
However, having high-risk HPV is not the same as having cervical cancer. Usually, these high-risk HPV types cause no health problems at all and go away on their own. Furthermore, even if HPV does cause damage, with regular Pap tests, cervical cell changes can be found and treated to prevent cancer from ever developing.