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What is HPV?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus. It infects the skin and any moist membrane (mucosa), such as:

  • the lining of the mouth and throat
  • the cervix
  • the vagina, vulva and anus (opening at the end of the back passage).

Most HPV infections are sexually transmitted, which can make some people feel worried or embarrassed. But it is nothing to be ashamed of. At some point during our lives, 4 out of 5 (80%) of us will get at least one type of HPV. In most cases, your immune system will get rid of HPV. HPV infections do not usually have any symptoms, so you may not even know you had it.

HPV lives on our skin, so it is easy to get and difficult to completely protect against.

Read more about how HPV is passed on >

Types of HPV

We know of over 200 types of HPV. Each type has a number and different types affect different parts of the body. Most types infect the skin on the outside of the body, including the hands and feet. For example, some HPV types cause warts on the feet.

Genital HPV types

About 40 HPV types affect the genital areas of men and women, including the:

  • cervix
  • anus
  • vagina
  • skin of the penis
  • vulva and perineal skin (area outside the vagina, including the labia and the area between the opening of the vagina and anus).

Most of these genital HPV types are called low risk. They can cause conditions like genital warts. Low-risk HPV types do not cause cervical cancer.

Read more about genital warts >

HPV types linked to cancer

About 13 HPV types are linked to cervical cancer. These types are called high-risk HPV.

High-risk HPV types 16 and 18 cause 70% of all cervical cancers. Other high-risk HPV types that can cause cancer are 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59 and 68.

Read more about HPV and its link to cervical cancer >

Symptoms of HPV

High-risk genital HPV has no symptoms. This may be worrying, but remember that most of us get rid of HPV without needing treatment. If you go for cervical screening (a smear test) when invited, it can find a high-risk HPV virus and changes early, before it develops into cancer.

Read more about cervical screening (smear tests) >

It is also important to be aware of cervical cancer symptoms and see your GP if you have any symptoms.  

Read more about the symptoms of cervical cancer >

More information and support

HPV can be a really complicated topic, so don't worry if you are worried or unsure about it. If you have questions, remember you can always call our Helpline on 0808 802 8000 or use our Ask the Expert service.

Show references

  1. Trottier H et al., The epidemiology of genital human papillomavirus infection, Vaccine, 2006.
  2. Koutsky L, Epidemiology of genital human papillomavirus infection, The American Journal of Medicine, 1997.
  3. Cubie H, Diseases associated with human papillomavirus infection, Virology, 2013.
  4. Doorbar J et al., Human papillomavirus molecular biology and disease association, Review of Medical Virology, 2015.
  5. Munoz N, et all., Epidemiologic classification of human papillomavirus types associated with cervical cancer, The New England Journal of Medicine, 2003.

 

 

Date last updated: 
17 Aug 2018
Date due for review: 
17 Aug 2020

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