What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a viral infection. It can infect different areas of your body, leading to problems like warts and verrucas. Certain types of HPV can infect your genital region, including your vagina, vulva, cervix, anus (back passage), as well as your mouth and throat.
For most people, the virus doesn’t cause any problems. This means you’re unlikely to even know if you’ve had it. But HPV infection in your genital area can sometimes lead to genital warts, or more rarely, certain cancers, listed below. There are several different types or ‘strains’ of the virus. They can be classed as ‘low-risk’ or ‘high-risk’. This depends on whether they may cause cancer.
- Low-risk HPV includes the types that may cause genital warts.
- High-risk HPV can trigger cervical cancer and less often, cancers affecting your vulva, vagina, penis, anus and throat.
If you get genital warts it doesn’t mean that you’re at greater risk of cancer, as they’re caused by different strains.
Most people don’t get cancer from HPV, even if they have a high-risk type. Cervical cancer usually only develops if you have a persistent infection (one that doesn’t go away for a long time). For most people, the virus causes pre-cancerous changes in the cells of their cervix first. These can be picked up with a screening test and treated, before they turn into cancer.
What are the symptoms of HPV infections?
You won’t get any symptoms just from having an HPV infection. It usually clears up by itself within a year or two, without causing any problems. However, you may get symptoms if you develop genital warts or cancer as a result of an HPV infection.
Genital wart symptoms
If you develop genital warts, you may notice small, fleshy-coloured growths around your vagina or penis. If they’re in the area around your anus, these are called anogenital warts.
Cervical cancer symptoms
Symptoms of cervical cancer include unusual vaginal bleeding. This may include after sex, between periods or after the menopause. You may also have pain of discomfort during sex.
Symptoms of other genital cancers
Symptoms will be different for other types of cancer. But always seek advice from a doctor if you have any lump or swelling, bleeding, pain or change in the skin around your genital area.
How is HPV spread?
Genital HPV is spread through sexual contact with an infected person. This can be any skin-to-skin contact of the genitals – it doesn’t have to involve penetration. This may include:
- vaginal sex
- anal sex
- oral sex involving the vagina, penis or anus
- touching genitals
- sharing sex toys
Your risk of getting HPV increases with the number of sexual partners you have, and every time you have a new sexual partner. But if you’ve had any form of sexual contact, even with just one person, you can still get HPV.
Is there a test for HPV?
HPV tests are available in the UK as part of the NHS cervical screening programme. This is open to all people registered as female with a cervix, between the ages of 25 and 64. You can also book a cervical screening test privately. The test involves taking a sample of cells from your cervix and testing them for high-risk types of HPV. If you’re positive for a high-risk HPV, the cells will be checked for any abnormal changes which could lead to cancer.
HPV tests aren’t used outside of cervical screening. It’s not useful to test HPV from other parts of the body to screen for other forms of cancer or genital warts.
What is the treatment for HPV?
Your body usually clears HPV by itself over time. There’s no treatment that can get rid of the virus. But treatments are available to manage conditions that develop as a result of HPV, like genital warts or cervical cancer.
How can I protect myself from HPV?
You can’t completely protect yourself from getting an HPV infection. But there are things you can do to reduce the risk. These include:
- getting vaccinated against HPV
- having safe sex by using condoms and dental dams (a thin, plastic square over your anus or vagina during oral sex)
Condoms can help to reduce the risk of getting HPV, but they can’t completely protect against it. This is because the virus may be present on areas of skin not covered by the condom.
The HPV vaccine protects against the strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer and other forms of cancer associated with HPV. It also protects against the strains most often linked to genital warts.
The vaccine is routinely offered to:
- all children in school year 8 in the UK (aged 12 to 13)
- men who have sex with men up to the age of 45, who are attending specialist Sexual Health Services and HIV clinics
Offering the vaccination to children at age 12 to 13 means they can get vaccinated before they become sexually active. But if you don’t get vaccinated at this age, you can still have it up to the age of 25. If you don’t fall into the groups above, you may be able to pay to get the vaccine at a private clinic, following a clinical assessment.
There has already been a huge drop in the rates of cervical cancer and genital warts since the vaccine programme was introduced in 2008. This is expected to continue – meaning hundreds or even thousands of lives could potentially be saved in years to come.
Where can I get more information about HPV?
Sexwise has information on sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as genital warts that are caused by HPV. They have advice on protecting yourself from STIs.
There are various organisations offering support and advice for people with cancers related to HPV. This includes Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. They also have more information on HPV screening and testing positive for HPV.