What is HPV?
HPV is a group of over 200 viruses that are spread by skin-to-skin contact. Most of the time HPV doesn't cause any problems but some types of HPV - the ones that are spread by sexual contact - can increase the risk of cancer in the mouth and throat, cervix, vagina, vulva, anus and penis. We can prevent HPV and reduce the risk of HPV-related cancer through inceased awareness, vaccination and cervical screening. Check out our information pages to find out how you can reduce the risk of HPV.
How can I protect myself against HPV?
As almost all of us will have HPV at some time and because most of us will not have any symptoms it can be very hard to avoid infection. There are several things you can do to reduce your risk of getting HPV.
If you can get vaccinated do it! Vaccination prior to sexual contact is the most effective way to protect against HPV and HPV cancers. Research shows that vaccination prevents almost 90% of cervical cancer cases.
Cervical screening can check for HPV infection and for changes in the cells of the cervix that could go on to become cancer. If you are invited to attend a cervical screening make sure you attend.
During a screening test, sometimes referred to as a pap or smear test, a sample of the cervix is swabbed (collected) and sent to a laboratory for testing. The examination is not painful and typically takes a few minutes.
Condoms offer some protection against HPV- the more you use them the more protected you are. But as condoms don't cover the whole genital area you can still become infected.
Who gets HPV?
HPV is very common - 80% of people will have HPV at some point in their lives. Many people mistakenly think that HPV is something that only affects women—this is not the case. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) and is easily passed from one person to another, potentially affecting anyone. HPV infections affecting the genital areas, mouth and throat are passed on through skin-to-skin contact, oral sex and sexual intercourse (vaginal and anal).
It can be very difficult to know if you have HPV as it often has no visible symptoms. Cervical screening (as part of a pap or smear test) is a test offered to women to detect abnormal cells in the cervix which could develop in to cervical cancer. Some screening programs also test for HPV. Screening tests are voluntary, but it is really important that you attend so that your health care provider can detect any early changes to cells before they develop into pre-cancers or cancer. Early identification of HPV and cell changes make it much easier to treat cervical cancer and improve outcomes for patients.
Cervical cancer accounts for most HPV related cancer diagnoses, but numbers of head and neck and anal cancers in both men and women are increasing. HPV is responsible for 60,000 cancer diagnoses in men each year. At the moment there is no approved screening test for HPV in men.
What happens if me or my partner gets HPV?
HPV infects skin cells which makes it very easy to get and pass on and it is very difficult to completely protect against. Most people who have an HPV infection won’t know they have it because the body’s immune system often destroys the virus before it causes symptoms. Someone can have HPV for a very long time withouth knowing.
Sometimes HPV can cause genital warts; if you notice any small bumps which are shaped a bit like a cauliflower, or itching and/or discomfort on/around your genitals, then you should contact your healthcare provider who can discuss treatment options with you.
HPV is also linked to certain cancers such as cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus. HPV can also cause cancer in the throat and mouth including the tongue and tonsils. It is important to be aware of changes in your body and to talk to your healthcare provider if you have concerns. It is also important to attend cervical screening tests, if these are availalbe to you.
So, what's the big deal if HPV is so common?
For many people, their immune systems can deal with HPV viruses, but for a small number of people, HPV can cause persistent infections, which cannot be cleared by the immune system and which can, over time, cause cells to change which can lead to the cancers mentioned above. It is important to speak to your healthcare provider if you notice genital warts in order to detect and treat HPV early.
For some HPV-related cancers, such as cervical cancer, screening programmes exist for women. HPV screening can help to identify women at higher risk of developing cervical cancer by detecting early signs of cell changes that can be treated before they develop into cancer. At the moment, screening programmes do not exist for other HPV-related cancers.
What can I do to live well with HPV?
While you can’t entirely protect against HPV there are several things you can do to reduce your risk. Make sure you get vaccinated against HPV, if that option is available to you. Women should ensure that you always participate in available cervical cancer screening programmes. It is also advisable to use condoms whenever you have sex in order to minimise the spread of HPV. If you are concerned that you have genital warts or spreading HPV, then speak to your healthcare provider.