Dossier: Sexuality

HPV infection: protect yourself against cancer

Have you heard of the human papillomavirus, or HPV for short? Although eight out of ten people have HPV at some point in their lives, many people haven’t heard of the infection, which is responsible for around 70% of all cases of cervical cancer and is also dangerous for men.

Original text: Nicole Krättli; updated on 13.3.2024: Katharina Rilling; photo: iStock

Can you get tongue cancer from sex? In 2010, the actor Michael Douglas drew media attention to the HP virus by claiming that he’d caught the infection during oral sex with his wife. This then developed into cancer in his mouth. His statement caused quite a stir at the time, and many people made fun of Douglas and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones as a result. Although HPV is better known and less stigmatised today, it is still primarily associated with cervical cancer. Many people don’t know that the infection can also cause cancer in men and that boys should also be vaccinated against it. Read on to find out more.

What is HPV?

The three letters refer to a whole range of virus types that can trigger different symptoms and infect the skin or mucous membranes. Most human papillomavirus infections are harmless, but some high-risk types can cause warts or even cancer.

How do you catch HPV?

HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. In the genital area, papillomaviruses are transmitted through vaginal, oral or anal sex. The viruses can also enter the throat and pharynx area – as in the case of Michael Douglas. The pathogens sleep unnoticed in many beds. According to estimates, around 70 to 80% of sexually active women and men become infected with HPV in the course of their lives. The good news is that in 90% of cases, the body recovers on its own and the infection heals within two years without causing any harm.

Who can catch HPV?

As sexually active people with multiple sexual partners are most at risk, the infection is most common among 20 to 30-year-olds and 50-year-olds. 

Do condoms prevent HPV?

As with sexually transmitted diseases in general, having sex with a condom reduces the risk of infection, but in this case only by around 50%. This is because human papillomaviruses can also be transmitted to the intimate area by areas not covered by a condom and spread from there. Nevertheless, it still makes sense to use a condom – not least to avoid becoming infected with other sexually transmitted diseases.

What are the symptoms in women and men?

Around two-thirds of people don’t show any symptoms, so the infection often goes unnoticed. This can be dangerous, because if the malignant high-risk type of the virus festers unnoticed in the body and persists in infected cells for months or even years, it can lead to cell changes – and in the worst case to cancer.

Small and large genital warts

Less aggressive HP viruses cause harmless but irritating and, above all, contagious symptoms: visible or hidden genital warts. These flat nodules are usually the size of pinhead and grow, for example, inside the vagina, on the penis or in the anus. Sometimes they can only be identified by a doctor. Sometimes, they grow in a cauliflower-like shape and are then clearly visible. Growths and precancerous lesions can be surgically removed. The earlier they are discovered, the better the chances of treatment.

HPV and cancer: how high is the risk for men and women?

In recent years, around 250 new cases of cervical cancer and around 5,000 precancerous lesions have been diagnosed in Switzerland each year. According to figures published by the Federal Office of Public Health, cervical cancer is the fifth most common type of cancer among women aged between 20 and 49 in Switzerland.

Any woman can be affected by cervical cancer. However, the biggest risk factor is infection with a high-risk variant of HPV. The risk of developing cervical cancer is increased by smoking, sexual intercourse at a very young age, frequent changes of sexual partner, additional infections of the genital organs through sexually transmitted pathogens, and chronic disorders of the immune system.

But it’s not just cervical cancer. Around 240 cases of anal cancer are discovered in Switzerland each year (70% of those diagnosed are women). Some 400 people (70% men) are diagnosed with cancer of the mouth or throat, with around 20% of these being caused by HP viruses. Data from the USA shows that around 2% of all cancers in men are caused by HPV.

Should girls and boys be vaccinated?

The HPV vaccine has been recommended for girls in Switzerland since 2008 and for boys since 2015. More specifically, the Federal Commission for Vaccination recommends the HPV vaccine as a primary vaccination for all girls aged 11 to 14. Ideally, the vaccination should be given before the first sexual intercourse. A second vaccine should be administered between the age of 15 and 19. For young women aged 20 to 26 and for boys and men aged 11 to 26, the Federal Office of Public Health recommends the HPV vaccination as a supplementary vaccination. The protection provided by the vaccination lasts at least ten years.

The HPV vaccine is also important for boys. Many parents don’t realise that the vaccination will not only protect their son from cancer, but also his future sexual partners.

Should adults be vaccinated against HPV?

Experts recommend that even adults who have already been infected with the HP virus should have a late vaccination, because it strengthens the immune system. A natural infection only provides low immunity against this one type of virus, probably even only on the infected area of skin. Although the vaccine doesn’t protect against all HPV types and therefore doesn’t offer 100% protection, the benefits outweigh any disadvantages because it protects the whole body more comprehensively and for longer against particularly aggressive types of the virus.

The best protection is to use a condom, get the vaccination and go for regular smear tests.