Everything you need to know about HPV

Dr Kathryn Basford
·5-min read
Photo credit: jarun011 - Getty Images
Photo credit: jarun011 - Getty Images

From Netdoctor

Human Papilloma Virus - more commonly known as HPV - is a group of viruses primarily spread through skin-to-skin contact such as sexual activity. HPV does not cause any problems for most people, but infection can result in genital warts and even some types of cancer.

But what exactly is HPV, what are the risk factors and, most importantly, how can you prevent it? Dr Kathryn Basford, Clinical Lead at Zava, looks at HPV virus symptoms, diagnosis and vaccination:

What is HPV virus?

HPV is a family of viruses that affect the skin and mucous surfaces of the body - these include the vagina, cervix, anus, mouth and throat.

There are many types of HPV, and they can affect all different parts of the body. Most people know of HPV in relation to genital warts and the link to cervical cancer. However, some types of HPV also cause warts that you get on your hands and feet.

HPV virus symptoms

What are the most common symptoms of HPV virus? For most people, HPV won't actually cause any signs or symptoms at all. It is possible to have the virus and not know about it, and for your body to clear it without it ever causing any problems.

When some types of HPV cause an infection in the genital area, they can cause genital warts. These are fleshy growths that you can see on the skin around the genital area - on the penis, the vulva, the vagina and around the anus. It is possible to have warts on the cervix as well but it is usually difficult to see these unless you're being examined by a doctor.

There are more than 30 types of HPV that cause warts in the genital area, the most common are HPV types 6 and 11. These are known as low-risk HPV types because they are not linked with cancers.

Photo credit: Universal Images Group - Getty Images
Photo credit: Universal Images Group - Getty Images

What can the HPV virus lead to?

It is estimated that up to 80 per cent of women (4 in 5) will have HPV at some point in their lives, but they will have it and clear it without knowing about it. However, HPV can sometimes lead to the following:

• HPV virus and warts

The low-risk types of HPV can cause genital warts. There are other types of HPV that cause warts on the hands or feet too.

• HPV virus and cancer

In very rare cases it is possible for high-risk types of HPV to lead to cervical cancer, and also cancer affecting the anus, penis, throat, tongue or tonsils. The most common high-risk types are HPV types 16 and 18, although there are 11 other high-risk types. The numbers of women who end up having cervical cancer are very small (1 in 142 UK women will be diagnosed in their lifetime). The number of people being diagnosed with other cancers associated with HPV is much lower.

How is HPV virus diagnosed?

Genital warts are diagnosed based on their appearance. Your doctor can examine you in person to see if you have warts, or if you have any particular areas that you are worried about you can do an online photo assessment with Zava, it’s quick and discreet to perfect for any concerns you might have about a skin lesion.

Often infection with high-risk HPV is picked up when you attend cervical screening (formerly called a smear test), although it is also possible to take self-swab tests to check for this too. Testing positive for one of these high-risk types of HPV does not mean that you will necessarily develop cervical cancer.

However, your GP will usually arrange for you to have another type of test called a colposcopy. This is where a health professional at a hospital or clinic will examine your cervix closely to look for any changes on the surface of the cervix, they might also take some samples if anything looks suspicious.

HPV virus vaccine

The NHS vaccination programme offers protection from certain types of HPV to girls and boys aged 12 to 13. The HPV vaccine helps protect against the following:

  • Cervical cancer

  • Some mouth and throat (head and neck) cancers

  • Some cancers of the anal and genital areas

  • Genital warts

HPV virus prevention

Can you prevent HPV? The virus is passed on from skin-to-skin contact. This means that you don't have to have penetrative sex to pass on the infection, it can be passed on from any skin contact. This also means that it can be difficult to prevent passing on HPV. Using barrier contraception such as condoms can reduce the chance of this - both when having penetrative sex and for oral sex.

The types of HPV that cause warts are more commonly passed on when there are visible warts on the skin, however it is possible to pass it on when there are no warts to be seen, and the high-risk types of HPV don't cause any visible symptoms so you would not know if you were being exposed to them.

HPV virus treatment

How do you treat HPV? The virus itself cannot be treated, although in most cases the body fights off the infection itself.

The symptoms of genital warts can be treated, but this only removes visible warts, not the virus itself. There are a variety of treatments from creams and gels to put on warts, to freezing treatments and surgical removal. The treatment that is recommended depends on the extent and the site of warts.

HPV virus and cervical cancer

For the rare cases when HPV has led to cervical cancer the type of treatment that is needed will depend on what stage the cancer is at. Cervical screening picks up very early changes in cells on the cervix, before they become cancer, and this means that these cells can be removed with a small procedure before they develop into cancer. This is why it is so important to keep up to date with cervical screening (formerly called a smear test).

Being aware of the following possible symptoms of cervical cancer is very important:

  • Bleeding during or after sex

  • Bleeding in between periods

  • Pain during sex

  • Lower back pain

  • Unusual vaginal discharge

  • Bleeding after the menopause

If you have any concerns about HPV or cervical cancer, make an appointment with your GP or visit your local sexual health clinic.

Last updated: 18-11-2020

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