Differences Between High-Risk and Low-Risk HPV Strains

Discover the key differences between high-risk and low-risk HPV strains, their health implications, and preventive measures. Learn more about HPV, its effects, and how to protect yourself effectively.

Understanding the Differences Between High-Risk and Low-Risk HPV Strains. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common viral infection that affects millions of people worldwide. It is so prevalent that nearly every sexually active person will contract at least one strain of HPV at some point in their lives. However, not all HPV strains are created equal. There are over 200 types of HPV, which are generally classified into high-risk and low-risk categories based on their potential to cause health problems.

Table of Contents:

What is HPV?

HPV is a group of related viruses, with each virus in the group being identified by a unique number, known as its HPV type. HPV can infect the skin and mucous membranes, and it is primarily spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact, including sexual activity. While most HPV infections resolve on their own without causing any health issues, certain strains can lead to serious conditions.

Low-Risk HPV Strains

Low-risk HPV strains are those that typically cause benign (non-cancerous) conditions. These strains are often responsible for:

  1. Genital Warts: Low-risk HPV types, particularly HPV 6 and 11, are known to cause genital warts. These warts can appear on the vulva, penis, anus, or within the urethra. They can also develop in the mouth or throat if transmitted through oral sex.
  2. Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis (RRP): This rare condition, also caused by HPV 6 and 11, leads to the growth of warts in the respiratory tract, which can obstruct the airways and cause breathing difficulties.

Characteristics of Low-Risk HPV

  • Non-Oncogenic: Low-risk HPV strains are considered non-oncogenic, meaning they do not cause cancer.
  • Symptoms: Often present as warts on the genital or anal areas, sometimes asymptomatic.
  • Treatment: Genital warts can be treated with prescription medications, cryotherapy (freezing off the warts), or surgical removal. However, HPV itself cannot be cured, and warts may recur.

High-Risk HPV Strains

High-risk HPV strains are those associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. The most notable high-risk HPV types are 16 and 18, which together account for approximately 70% of cervical cancer cases. Other high-risk strains include HPV 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.

Health Risks Associated with High-Risk HPV

  1. Cervical Cancer: High-risk HPV strains can cause changes in the cells of the cervix, leading to cervical dysplasia (pre-cancerous changes) and, if left untreated, cervical cancer.
  2. Other Cancers: High-risk HPV types are also linked to other cancers, including:
  • Anal Cancer: More common in individuals with a history of receptive anal intercourse.
  • Oropharyngeal Cancer: Affects the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils.
  • Penile Cancer: A rare form of cancer affecting the penis.
  • Vulvar and Vaginal Cancers: Affecting the external and internal female genitalia, respectively.

Characteristics of High-Risk HPV

  • Oncogenic: High-risk HPV strains have the potential to cause cancer.
  • Symptoms: Often asymptomatic in the early stages; cancer symptoms may include abnormal bleeding, pain, or lumps.
  • Screening and Prevention: Regular Pap smears and HPV DNA tests are crucial for early detection of cervical changes. The HPV vaccine is highly effective in preventing infections from the most common high-risk strains.

HPV Vaccination

The development of the HPV vaccine has been a significant advancement in preventing both low-risk and high-risk HPV infections. Vaccines such as Gardasil and Cervarix provide protection against the most common high-risk HPV strains, as well as the low-risk strains that cause genital warts. The vaccine is recommended for preteens (boys and girls) aged 11-12, but it can be given as early as age 9 and up to age 26 for those who were not vaccinated earlier.

FAQs: Difference Between High-Risk and Low-Risk HPV Strains

What is HPV?

HPV (Human Papillomavirus) is a group of more than 200 related viruses. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), with many types affecting the genital area.

What are the main differences between high-risk and low-risk HPV strains?

  • High-Risk HPV Strains: These types are associated with an increased risk of developing cancers, such as cervical, anal, oropharyngeal, penile, vulvar, and vaginal cancers. The most common high-risk strains are HPV 16 and 18.
  • Low-Risk HPV Strains: These types are generally not associated with cancer but can cause benign conditions like genital warts. HPV 6 and 11 are the most common low-risk strains.

How are high-risk and low-risk HPV strains transmitted?

Both high-risk and low-risk HPV strains are primarily transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus.

What health problems do low-risk HPV strains cause?

Low-risk HPV strains mainly cause:

  • Genital Warts: Flesh-colored or grey growths in the genital area.
  • Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis (RRP): Warts in the respiratory tract that can cause breathing difficulties.

What health problems do high-risk HPV strains cause?

High-risk HPV strains can lead to:

  • Cervical Cancer: Changes in the cells of the cervix that can progress to cancer if untreated.
  • Other Cancers: Anal, oropharyngeal, penile, vulvar, and vaginal cancers.

Can HPV infections be prevented?

Yes, through:

  • HPV Vaccination: Vaccines like Gardasil and Cervarix protect against the most common high-risk and some low-risk HPV strains.
  • Safe Sexual Practices: Using condoms and limiting the number of sexual partners can reduce the risk of HPV transmission.
  • Regular Screening: Pap smears and HPV tests can detect early changes in cervical cells.

Is there a treatment for HPV?

There is no cure for the virus itself, but there are treatments for the health problems caused by HPV:

  • Genital Warts: Can be treated with prescription medications, cryotherapy, or surgical removal.
  • Precancerous Changes and Cancer: Treatments include surgical procedures, radiation, and chemotherapy, depending on the cancer type and stage.

How common are high-risk and low-risk HPV infections?

HPV is very common, with most sexually active people contracting at least one type in their lifetime. High-risk HPV strains are found in about 5-10% of the population, while low-risk strains are responsible for the majority of genital warts cases.

Do high-risk HPV strains always lead to cancer?

No, most high-risk HPV infections do not lead to cancer. The body’s immune system often clears the virus naturally. Persistent infections with high-risk strains are the ones that can cause cell changes leading to cancer over many years.

Yes, men can develop HPV-related cancers, including:

  • Penile Cancer
  • Anal Cancer
  • Oropharyngeal Cancer

What should I do if I think I have been exposed to HPV?

Consult a healthcare provider for advice. Regular screenings and follow-up care are essential, especially for women, to monitor for any changes in cervical cells.

Is the HPV vaccine effective?

Yes, the HPV vaccine is highly effective at preventing infections with the most common high-risk and low-risk HPV strains. It is most effective when administered before individuals become sexually active.

Who should get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine is recommended for:

  • Preteens (boys and girls) aged 11-12
  • Individuals up to age 26 who were not vaccinated earlier

Where can I get more information about HPV?

For more detailed information, consult reputable sources such as:


Understanding the differences between high-risk and low-risk HPV strains is crucial for managing and preventing HPV-related health issues. While low-risk strains generally cause benign conditions like genital warts, high-risk strains are associated with various cancers. Vaccination, regular screening, and safe sexual practices are key strategies in reducing the risk of HPV infection and its potential complications.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HPV and Cancer.
  2. World Health Organization (WHO). Human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer.
  3. National Cancer Institute. HPV and Cancer.
  4. Mayo Clinic. HPV infection.

By staying informed and proactive, individuals can effectively manage their risk and contribute to the broader public health effort to reduce the prevalence of HPV-related diseases.

Also see: Different Types of HPV