Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that 4 out of 5 (80%) of us will have at some point during our lives. It is passed on through skin-to-skin contact. For genital HPV, this includes:
- vaginal, anal and oral sex
- touching in the genital area
- sharing sex toys.
You are at risk of getting HPV from your first sexual contact, whatever that is – it doesn’t have to be sex that involves putting part of your body into someone's vagina, anus or mouth (penetrative sex). Anybody who has ever had any kind of sexual contact is at risk of getting HPV.
Who did I get HPV from?
We can have HPV for a long time without knowing about it, so it is hard to know when we got HPV or who we got it from. Remember, having HPV does not mean any partner has been unfaithful.
Will HPV develop into something else?
Your immune system usually gets rid of HPV without treatment. In fact, you may never know you had it!
You can have HPV that does not cause any harm (clinically insignificant) for many years. But in some people, HPV may cause other conditions (clinically significant). The time from getting HPV to developing genital warts, cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer varies.
How can I reduce my risk of getting high-risk HPV?
High-risk HPV has no symptoms, so it is difficult to tell whether you or someone else has it. But there are some ways you can reduce your risk of getting HPV or developing a persistent infection:
- Stop smoking. In the UK, about 20% of cervical cancers are caused by smoking tobacco. Smoking can make your immune system weaker, which means it is less likely to fight off disease and infection. If you get HPV, a weak immune system may not be able to get rid of it. If you want to quit smoking, the NHS has programmes to support you in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
- If you are eligible, think about having the HPV vaccine. The vaccine helps protect against 70% of cervical cancers. Read more about the HPV vaccine >
- Have safer sex. Using condoms or dental dams help reduce your risk of being infected with HPV, but they do not completely get rid of the risk. Condoms and dental dams only cover part of the genitals, but HPV lives on the skin in and around the whole genital area.
If you have a condition that affects your immune system, like HIV, it may be harder for you to get rid of HPV. Speak to your doctor about going for cervical screening (a smear test) once a year.
Even though we can't completely protect against HPV, going for cervical screening can find any changes to cervical cells (abnormal cells) early, before they develop.
Read more about cervical screening >
"When I realised how common HPV was, my guilt did subside. There wasn’t much else I could have done to protect myself from HPV – the vaccine wasn’t available when I was at school. It was just that my body didn’t clear the HPV."
- Laura, a service user and Jo’s volunteer
More information and support
If you are worried or want to know more about HPV, call our Helpline on 0808 802 8000 so our trained volunteers can support you. Or you can use our Ask the Expert service to get the answers you need for medical professionals.
- Roset Bahmanyar E et al., Prevalence and risk factors for cervical HPV infection and abnormalities in young adult women at enrolment in the multinational PATRICIA trial, Gynaecological Oncology, 2012.
- Schletch N et al., Human Papillomavirus Infection and Time to Progression and Regression of Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2003.
- Lam JU et al., Condom use in prevention of Human Papillomavirus infections and cervical neoplasia: systematic review of longitudinal studies, Journal of Medical Screening, 2014.
- Minkoff H et al., Relationship between Smoking and Human Papillomavirus Infections in HIV-Infected and -Uninfected Women, The Journal of Infectious Disease, 2004.
- Harper D et al., HPV vaccines – A review of the first decade, Gynaecologic Oncology, 2017.
- Cancer Research UK, Cervical cancer risk www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/cervical-cancer/risk-factors Accessed: May 2019.