About Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV stands for Human papillomavirus. This is a very common virus that most women will come into contact with at some time during their lives. There are lots of different types of the virus most of which do not cause any problems.

One or more high-risk types of Human papillomavirus (hrHPV) are present in over 99.7% of cervical cancers.

Testing all women who attend for cervical screening for hrHPV will pick up more cell changes and prevent more cancers than in the past.

What do the viruses do?

In most women does not cause any problems, as the body will get rid of the virus on its own.

Some types can cause cell changes on the skin. These are called either high risk or low risk types depending on what changes they can cause.

High risk types of HPV can cause changes in the cells of the skin covering the neck of the womb (cervix). These cell changes are called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). Most CIN will go away on its own, but sometimes it can get worse and become cervical cancer.

High-risk types of HPV can also cause changes in the skin cells in other parts of the body, including the vagina, vulva, anus, throat and mouth.

Types 16 and 18 are the most common high-risk types, but there are 14 high-risk types that are tested for in cervical screening.

Low risk types of HPV can cause warts. Cervical screening does not test for low risk types as they will not cause cervical cancer.

How do I get it?

HPV is spread by skin to skin contact. For HPV in the cervix, this is through sexual contact. This can be by having full sex, oral sex, genital touching or sharing sex toys.

Is it common?

Yes. Most women are probably infected at some stage in their lives but never know. In most cases the body’s own defence mechanisms (immune system) get rid of the virus.

How do I know if I have the virus?

The virus does not cause any symptoms even if there are cell changes on the cervix. This is why cervical screening is important.

It’s an infection – so when did it happen?

The HPV virus can lie dormant (sleeping) for many years and may never cause any cell changes. If it is found on a screening test, we cannot say how long it has been there. The virus might cause cell changes many years later. This is why it is important to keep going for screening when you are invited, even if your tests have always been normal.

Can HPV be treated?

HPV is a virus which means that it cannot be treated with antibiotics. In most women, their body will get rid of the HPV on its own. If you have cell changes caused by the virus, these may need to be treated. Most minor cell changes will go on their own without treatment.

Can men get HPV?

Men can get HPV and can pass it on to partners. High risk HPV is linked to certain cancers in men, including penile cancer. High risk HPV can also cause some head and neck cancers in both men and women.

How can I prevent it?

Using condoms can reduce your risk, but does not give you complete protection, although condoms do protect against other infections. Going for cervical screening will tell you whether you have the virus in your cervix and whether it is causing any cell changes.

Does it cause infertility?

No.

Does it cause AIDS?

No. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is caused by a different virus called HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). Women with HIV may find it harder to get rid of HPV and will need screening more often.

What about smoking?

Smoking makes your body’s immune system weaker. This makes it much more difficult for your body to get rid of the virus, meaning you are at more risk of cell changes and cervical cancer.

What about vaccination?

Since September 2008 all girls aged 12-13 (school year 8) have been offered vaccination against the two most common types of high risk HPV. The vaccine could prevent 7 out of 10 cases of cervical cancer in future. However, it is possible to develop cell changes despite having had the vaccine. Women who have been vaccinated should still have their smear tests when invited. More information on the vaccine is available here.

Why doesn’t the vaccine prevent every case of cervical cancer?

Some cervical cancers are caused by different HPV types than the vaccine covers. This means that the vaccine cannot prevent every case. This is the reason women must still continue to have cervical smear tests even if they have been vaccinated.

If it doesn’t prevent every case is it worth being vaccinated?

Yes – the vaccine covers the most common (high risk) types of the virus which cause most cancers. The vaccine is given to girls aged 12-13 because it should be given before they might come into contact with HPV.

I’ve had the vaccination but I now have hrHPV on my test – why is this?

It could be that the type of hrHPV you have is not one that the vaccine covers. It could be that you had already come into contact with the virus before you were vaccinated.