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Virology of human papillomavirus infections and the link to cancer

Joel M Palefsky, MD
Ross D Cranston, MD
Section Editors
Don S Dizon, MD, FACP
David M Aboulafia, MD
Deputy Editor
Sadhna R Vora, MD


Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. The biology of these viruses has been studied extensively and its link with malignancies is well established, specifically with cancers involving the anogenital (cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal) tract and those involving the head and neck. The virology of HPV and its association with malignancy will be reviewed here. The clinical manifestations, diagnosis, epidemiology, prevention, and treatment of HPV infection are discussed separately. (See "Human papillomavirus infections: Epidemiology and disease associations".)


Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a small deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) virus of approximately 7900 base pairs. DNA sequencing techniques have facilitated HPV typing and characterization, with each type formally defined as distinct by having less than 90 percent DNA base-pair homology with any another HPV type [1]. There are over 40 HPV types that infect the anogenital area.


HPV genotypes’ association with cancer risk varies, and is reviewed below.

Cervical cancer — There is a broad separation of HPV types based on their associated risk of cervical cancer:

High-risk – This includes HPV 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, and 68

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Aug 21, 2017.
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