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Frequently asked questions for HPV

What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

HPV is a common virus that is passed on through skin-to-skin contact. There are over 200 types of HPV.

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Do all HPV types cause cervical cancer?

No. Most HPV types infect the skin and some cause warts that commonly appear on the hands and feet.

Around 40 HPV types affect the genital area. Around 13 of these HPV types can cause cancer. These types are called high-risk HPV. High-risk HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, anus, vulva, penis, and some head and neck cancers.

High-risk HPV includes types 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59 and 68. Types 16 and 18 cause 70% of all cervical cancers.

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Who can get HPV?

HPV is passed is 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. That means if you have ever been sexually active, you are at risk of having HPV.

Read more about how people get HPV >

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How can I reduce the risk of getting HPV?

HPV is common. High-risk HPV has no symptoms and the immune system often clears it without treatment, so most people may never know they had it. This makes it hard to tell whether you or someone else has HPV. It is your choice whether to stop having sexual contact altogether, but there are other ways to reduce your risk of getting a persistent HPV infection:

  • Have safe sex. Using condoms or dental dams helps reduce the risk of getting HPV, but they does not completely get rid of the risk. A condom only covers the penis and a dental dam only covers part of the genitals, but HPV lives on the skin in and around the whole genital area.
  • Not smoking. Smoking makes your immune system weaker, which means it is less likely to fight off infections like HPV. If your immune can’t get rid of HPV, it may develop into abnormalities and cervical cancer.

If you have a condition that affects your immune system, like HIV, speak with your doctor about going for cervical screening once a year.

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If I smoke, am I more likely to get a persistent HPV infection?

In the UK, about 20% of cervical cancers are caused by 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. Not smoking can boost your immune system and keep it working properly. If you want to quit smoking, the NHS has programmes to support you:

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If HPV is common and almost everyone has it, why don't more of us get cervical cancer?

Most of us get rid of HPV thanks to our immune systems.

For those of us who can’t get rid of HPV, going for cervical screening when invited can find changes to cervical cells (abnormalities) before cancer develops. Any abnormalities can be removed and, in most cases, this is successful.

For a small number of women and people with a cervix, changes to cervical cells happen more quickly between cervical screening appointments or, very rarely, changes are not found by cervical screening.

Read more about HPV >

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I've had or have genital warts. Does that mean I’m more likely to develop cervical cancer?

No. Having genital warts may be worrying or unpleasant, but it not does mean you are more likely to develop cervical cancer.

Genital warts and cervical cancer are caused by different types of HPV, so having genital warts does not mean that you are more likely to get cancer. There are over 200 types of HPV and most of them do not cause any health problems. The HPV types that cause genital warts (6 and 11) are called low risk because they aren’t linked to cancer.

Read more about genital warts >

 

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What other cancers does HPV cause?

High-risk HPV is responsible for 5% of all cases of cancer. As well as cervical cancer, it is linked to:

  • penile cancer (cancer of the penis)
  • anal cancer
  • vaginal cancer
  • vulval cancer
  • some head and neck cancers.

Read more about other HPV-related cancers >

 

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If I have had cervical cancer, am I at risk of getting another HPV-related cancer?

If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, you have an increased risk of developing another cancer linked to high-risk HPV. This can be upsetting or worrying, but we currently do not have much data on how big this risk is. If you need support or have questions, speak with your doctor or call our Helpline on 0808 802 8000.

Read more about other HPV-related cancers >

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If I have had cervical abnormalities, am I at risk of getting a HPV-related cancer?

Not all mild cervical abnormalities are because of high-risk HPV, so it does not necessarily mean you are at increased risk. If you are worried, speak with your doctor or nurse who know your full medical history and will be able to offer some guidance.

Read more about cervical abnormalities >

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I have had cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer caused by high-risk HPV. Can I get the same type of HPV again?

We don't have a definite answer to this question. In theory, if you and your partner have been infected with one type of HPV, you should now be immune to that type. This means you should not get it again.

However, studies have shown that natural immunity to HPV is poor and women and people with a cervix can be reinfected with the same HPV type.

In some cases, some people will not get the same type of HPV again, but in some cases other people will get the same type of HPV again.

We know this uncertainly can be hard, but it may help to be aware of symptoms and go for cervical screening (a smear test) when you are invited. If you are worried, speak with your doctor. Remember, we are also here to support you. Call our Helpline on 0808 802 8000, join our online forum to speak with others affected or use our Ask the Expert service.

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I've had HPV – what can I do to make sure I don’t get it again?

  • Don't smoke, or give up smoking if you do smoke. Smoking doubles your risk of cervical cancer because it makes your immune system weaker. 
  • Have safe sex by using condoms or dental dams. Condoms and dental dams can help prevent infection with HPV, but they don't completely get rid of the risk because they only cover one part of the genitals. HPV lives on the skin in and around the whole genital area.
  • Having the HPV vaccine, even after you have had an infection with HPV, offers you protection from infection with other HPV types. The vaccine is only available on the NHS for free until the age of 18, but is it available privately, for a cost, after that. Read more about the HPV vaccine >

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If I have a persistent HPV infection, will I pass it on to my partner and can they then reinfect me?

We don’t know much about HPV reinfection between couples, so there is a possibility that this could happen. But whether your partner has HPV and reinfects you will depend on whether their immune system can get rid of the infection.

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I've read that HPV can be inactive (dormant). Is this true?

In most cases, our immune system eventually clears HPV, usually within 2 years.

But in some cases, HPV may stay in the body (persist) for years. Sometimes the HPV does not cause any harm (clinically insignificant), but sometimes it can cause changes to the cells of the cervix (abnormalities). If HPV does this, it is clinically significant. Remember that this is rare and not what usually happens.

Many researchers say the chances of passing on HPV after the last time warts or cervical abnormalities were present reduces over time. This is not a definite answer, but it is likely that even when you have it, HPV does not always affect the body.

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If I haven't been sexually active for many years, could I still have HPV?

It's possible. In most cases, your immune system will eventually get rid of an HPV infection within 2 years. But HPV can stay in our bodies without causing any harm, although we don’t know a lot about this yet. Rarely, HPV that stays in the body can cause changes to the cells of the cervix (abnormalities). 

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How likely is it that I could come into contact with HPV after 50?

Anybody who has ever been sexually active is at risk of getting HPV, because genital HPV is passed on through skin-to-skin contact in the genital area, including:

  • vaginal, anal and oral sex
  • touching in the genital area
  • sharing sex toys.

The time from getting HPV to developing warts, cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer varies. In some people, we know that HPV can stay in the body without causing any problems (clinically insignificant) for a long time, before starting to cause problems. Often, it is not possible to find out exactly when you got HPV or who you got it from.

Most HPV infections are sexually transmitted, which can make some people feel worried or embarrassed. But it is nothing to be ashamed of because most of us (4 out of 5) will have it at some point in our lives.  It is more common in young, sexually active people, with most people having between the ages of 16 and 25. But you can get HPV at any age if you are sexually active.

Read more about how people get HPV >

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As I get older, will I be less able to get rid of HPV?

As we age, our ability to respond to any infection does decline, but there is still a good protective response in most of us.

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If I have been through the menopause am I still at risk of HPV?

Yes, you can still get HPV during or after menopause. HPV is passed on through skin-to-skin contact in the genital area – something that is not affected by the menopause.

If you have ever been sexually active, there is also a risk of having HPV that is not currently causing any problems (clinically insignificant), that could start to cause problems (become clinically significant).

Read more about how people get HPV >

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I’ve only had sex with one person – will I still get HPV?

HPV is a common, sexually transmitted virus. It is more common in young, sexually active people, with most people getting it between the ages of 16 and 25.

4 out of 5 (80%) of us will have HPV at some point in our lives, so it is really hard to avoid. Having HPV isn’t a sign that someone has slept with a lot of people or been unfaithful to a partner, because you can get it during your first sexual contact – whether that is touching, penetrative sex, oral sex or sharing sex toys. The risk of getting HPV does increase with the number of sexual partners someone has, as well as the number of partners their partner has had, but that is just because there is a higher chance of being exposed to HPV. 

The infection rate in men has not been evaluated to the same extent as in women, but is likely to follow the same pattern.

 

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Am I still at risk of getting HPV if I have a new sexual partner but use contraception?

Using condoms and dental dams to have safe sex can help reduce the risk of getting HPV. But it won’t completely get rid of the risk, as HPV lives on the skin in and around the whole genital area – not just the part that the condom or dental dam covers! In men, genital HPV affects the skin of the penis, scrotum, anus and rectum. In women, it affects the vulva (area outside the vagina), lining of the vagina, cervix and rectum.

The contraceptive pill and other forms of contraception will not help reduce the risk of getting HPV.

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I am sexually active but don’t currently have penetrative sex. Am I still at risk of getting HPV?

Anybody who has ever been sexually active is at risk of getting HPV. Genital HPV is passed on through skin-to-skin contact in the genital area, including:

  • touching
  • vaginal, anal and oral sex
  • sharing sex toys.

Read more about how people get HPV >

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When I was younger, I had abnormalities that went away on their own. Does this mean my immune system is now strong enough to fight HPV on its own?

Unfortunately, we don't have a definite answer to this question. In theory, once you have been infected with HPV you should be immune to that type and should not be reinfected. However, studies have shown that natural immunity to HPV is poor and women can be reinfected with the same virus type. So in some cases the answer will be yes, but in others it will be no. 

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How does HPV cause cancer?

Some types of HPV can cause changes in the cells – we call these changes abnormalities. If the abnormalities get worse (become severe), they may develop into cancer over time.

Read more about HPV and cervical cancer >

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Did I get HPV from my current partner?

The time from getting HPV to developing genital warts, cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer varies.

Although most of us clear HPV within 2 years, it can stay in the body for many years, even decades, without causing any problems (clinically insignificant). But in some people, HPV may start causing problems (become clinically significant) again, which makes it difficult to find out exactly when you got HPV or who you got it from.

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I only have sex with women – am I still at risk of getting HPV?

Anyone who has ever had any sexual contact is at risk of getting HPV. It doesn’t matter what kind of sex that is – penetrative, oral, touching or sharing sex toys – or who you have it with.

Read more about how people get HPV >

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Can HPV be treated?

There is no treatment for HPV itself, but its effects can be treated – for example, genital warts, cell changes (abnormalities), or cervical cancer.

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