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Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an extremely common virus. At some point in our lives most of us will catch the virus. Worldwide, HPV is the most widespread of all sexually transmitted viruses; four out of five (80%) of the world's population will contract some type of the virus once in their life [1]. If you catch HPV, in the majority of cases the body's immune system will clear or get rid of the virus without the need for further treatment. In fact, you may not even know that you had contracted the virus.

There are over 200 identified types of HPV and each different type has been assigned a specific number. HPV infects the skin and mucosa (any moist membrane, such as the lining of the mouth and throat, the cervix and the anus). Different types affect different parts of the body, causing lesions. The majority of HPV types infect the skin on external areas of the body, including the hands and feet. For example, HPV types 1 and 2 cause verrucas on the feet [2]

Around 40 of the HPV types affect the genital areas of men and women, including the skin of the penis, vulva (area outside the vagina), anus, and the linings of the vagina, cervix and rectum [3]. Around 20 of these types are thought to be associated with the development of cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) International Association for Research on Cancer (IARC) defines 13 of these 20 types as oncogenic (cancer causing). This means there is direct evidence that they are associated with the development of cervical cancer and are considered high risk [4]. These high-risk types of HPV are HPV 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59 and 68 [5]. A person infected with a high-risk genital HPV will show no symptoms, so they may never even know they have it.

In addition, there are nine HPV types that may also be associated with the development of cervical cancer, these are HPV 26, 53, 64, 65, 66, 67, 69, 70, 73 and 82. However, there is currently not enough evidence to indicate that these are high-risk types for cervical cancer [6].

The remaining genital HPV types have been designated low risk as they do not cause cervical cancer but they can cause other problems, such as genital warts.

If you want to help raise awareness of HPV, its link to cervical cancer and how women can help to protect themselves, please share this video! We also have a version without subtitles

If you are a health care professional, please visit our health care professional information section where you will find a wide range of content, best practice guidelines, relevant links for you and your patients, and resources and ways that we can support you. You can also sign up for our quarterly health care professional e-newsletter.

Would you like to get involved with our work by helping us develop and improve our information and services? Visit the pages on our patient feedback group, Jo’s Voices, to see how to get involved.


  1. Koutsky L, 1997. Epidemiology of genital human papillomavirus infection. The American Journal of Medicine 102 (5A), 3–8.
  2. Lacey CJ et al., 2006. Chapter 4: Burden and management of non-cancerous HPV-related conditions: HPV-6/11 disease. Vaccine 24 (3), S3/35–41.
  3. Giuliano AR et al., 2008. Epidemiology of human papillomavirus infection in men, cancers other than cervical and benign conditions. Vaccine 26 (10), K17–K28.
  4. Walboomers JMM et al.,1999. Human papillomavirus is a necessary cause of invasive cancer worldwide. Journal of Pathology 189 (1), 12–19.
  5. Szarewski A, 2012. Cervarix: a bivalent vaccine against HPV types 16 and 18, with cross-protection against other high-risk HPV types.  Expert Review of Vaccines 11(6), 645–657.
  6. Bouvard et al., 2009. A review of human carcinogens – Part B: biological agents. Lancet Oncology 10, 321–322.  


Date last updated: 
27 Apr 2017
Date due for review: 
19 May 2018

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