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On this page, we answer some common questions about human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is the name of a common virus. It infects the skin and any moist membrane (mucosa). This includes the:
Most people will get HPV at some point in their lives. They often won’t even know they have it — it usually goes away without causing any problems.
If you have ever had any sexual contact, you may have HPV. It is passed on through skin-to-skin contact. For HPV that affects the genitals, this includes vaginal, anal and oral sex. You can also get HPV through touching in the genital area and sharing sex toys.
Yes — there are over 200 types. Some can be called ‘low-risk’ or ‘high-risk’ HPV depending on whether they are linked to cancer.
Low-risk HPV may not cause any problems. They sometimes lead to warts on your hands, feet or genitals.
14 types of HPV are called ‘high-risk’. These are the ones linked to cancer. The high-risk types of HPV are 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, 66 and 68.
High-risk HPV types 16 and 18 cause over 7 in 10 of all cervical cancers. In most people, HPV goes away within 2 years without causing any problems.
Although most cervical cancer is caused by high-risk HPV, having the virus does not mean you will get cell changes or cancer. About 9 in 10 people get rid of HPV within 2 years, without it causing any problems. This includes high-risk HPV types.
If you are eligible, cervical screening and the HPV vaccine can help reduce your risk of developing cell changes or cervical cancer.
Yes. Usually, your immune system gets rid of HPV within 2 years. But in some cases, HPV may stay in your body for longer.
Sometimes HPV does not cause any harm and will not be picked up by a test. We call this ‘dormant’ or ‘clinically insignificant’ HPV.
Occasionally, dormant HPV can become active again and may start to cause cervical cell changes. HPV that has become active would be detected with a test.
We don’t know exactly why this happens yet, but it may be because of changes in your immune system over time. It is important to remember that cervical screening (previously called a ‘smear test’) can help find HPV and any cell changes early.
We are still learning a lot about HPV. Some evidence suggests it may also be passed on during childbirth. However, the risk of this is low. Studies show that when babies do get HPV, their bodies usually clear it within 2 years.
There are reports of some babies who have HPV in their throat getting something called ‘recurrent respiratory papillomatosis’ or ‘RRP’. This is where warts appear in their airways, and this may make breathing difficult.
RRP is rare and can be treated. It has become even more rare now that HPV vaccination is available.
We understand that the thought of passing on HPV in this way may be worrying. But it is important to know that evidence suggests it is unlikely. If you have concerns, it may help to talk them through with your GP or midwife.
We are also here to support you with however you might be feeling. You can call our free Helpline on 0808 802 8000. Our opening hours are here.
It might be possible for this to happen. This is because different people can have different levels of natural immunity to HPV.
Natural immunity is where your immune system remembers a virus from when you had it naturally in the past. It means if you get that virus again, your body can destroy it quickly before it causes any problems.
Some of us have low natural immunity to HPV, so it might be possible for you to get the same HPV type more than once.
Cervical screening helps to find HPV early. The HPV vaccine protects against the HPV types that cause 7 in 10 cervical cancers. Immunity from the vaccine is stronger than natural immunity.
In most cases, HPV is cleared within 2 years without any. problems. However, we understand that you may be worried and we’re here to support you. Our Helpline number is 0808 802 8000. You can find our opening hours listed here.
Studies show it may be harder to clear HPV as you get older. Scientists also think other things could affect how likely you are to get rid of HPV. It might be affected by your immune system — some people’s bodies find it easier to fight HPV than others. It could also depend on the HPV type you have and whether you smoke. Smoking is thought to make you less likely to clear an infection.
It is important to remember that cervical screening (previously called a ‘smear test’) will help find HPV and cell changes early.
There is no treatment for HPV itself. But there are treatments for conditions caused by HPV, including genital warts, cervical cell changes and cancer.
There are certain HPV tests in the UK for women and people with a cervix. These are done as part of the NHS cervical screening programme. You can find more details on these on our ‘Testing for HPV’ page here.
HPV tests are only available free as part of the NHS cervical screening programme. Women and people with a cervix that are 25–64 years old are invited for cervical screening.
In England and Northern Ireland, you are invited for cervical screening every 3 or 5 years, depending on your age. In Scotland and Wales, you are invited every 5 years — it does not matter how old you are.
HPV tests are also available privately for a cost.
HPV tests are only available for free when invited as part of the NHS cervical screening programme. Women and people with a cervix that are 25–64 years old are invited for cervical screening. There is no HPV test for men or people without a cervix available on the NHS.
There is currently no HPV test for men or people without a cervix available on the NHS.
HPV tests are available privately for a cost.
Yes — but the types of HPV that cause genital warts and the ones that cause cervical cancer are different.
HPV types that cause genital warts are called ‘low-risk’. Those that can cause cervical cancer are called ‘high-risk’. Having genital warts does not mean you are more likely to get cancer.
HPV 6 and 11 are the most common low-risk types that can infect the genitals. They cause around 9 in 10 cases of genital warts. High-risk HPV types 16 and 18 cause more than 7 in 10 cervical cancers. The HPV vaccines used by the NHS include protection for these HPV types.
No — genital warts do not cause cancer. The HPV types that cause genital warts are called ‘low-risk’ because they are not thought to be linked to cervical cancer. Most cervical cancer is caused by other types of HPV, called ‘high-risk’ HPV.
The HPV vaccines given in schools and privately protects against HPV 6 and 11. These cause about 9 in 10 cases of genital warts.
Genital warts are caused by HPV. You can’t fully protect against HPV because it lives on the skin. But there are some ways to reduce your risk of getting it, including:
No — most HPV types do not cause problems. Some cause warts on the hands, feet or genitals.
14 HPV types have been linked to 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.
The high-risk HPV types are 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, 66 and 68. Types 16 and 18 cause over 7 in 10 of all cervical cancers.
Your immune system usually gets rid of HPV by itself. For 9 in 10 of us, this happens within 2 years.
Sometimes, HPV will remain in your body and it might cause cells to change. Changed cells may turn into cervical cancer over time if they persist and are not monitored or treated.
Cervical screening (previously called a ‘smear test’) can find HPV and changed cells early. Most cell changes can be treated and will not develop into cervical cancer.
For a small number of women and people with a cervix, cell changes happen very quickly between cervical screening appointments. Sometimes, cell changes are not found by cervical screening, but this is rare.
It might be possible for you to get HPV again. This may be the same HPV type your body had before. But you could get a type you have not had. If you have had one type of HPV, it is less likely you will be infected with that type again.
Sometimes when your body gets rid of a virus, it can remember it too. This means that if you get that virus again, your immune system can destroy it quickly before it causes any problems. When you are infected with a virus naturally and your body remembers it, this is called ‘natural immunity’.
Because we are all different, some people have lower natural immunity to HPV than others. We are also unsure how much natural immunity to one HPV type might protect you from another type. This means it may be possible for you to get the same HPV type again, or a type which you haven’t had before.
It might be possible for you to get HPV again — it could be an HPV type your body has cleared before, or a new type.
Scientists think lots of things might affect how your body fights HPV. Some studies show it may be harder for you to get rid of HPV as you get older. Scientists also think it is affected by your natural immunity.
Natural immunity is where your body remembers a virus from when you had it naturally in the past. If you get that virus again, your immune system can destroy it quickly before it causes any problems.
Levels of natural immunity can be different from person to person — so natural immunity to HPV is low for some of us. This means you might be able to get an HPV type you’ve had before.
It is also unclear how much natural immunity to one type of HPV protects against other types. Evidence suggests that some types are harder than others for your body to get rid of.
There is a higher risk of developing an HPV-related cancer if you have cell changes in your cervix. This is also the case if you have had them in the past. The level of risk depends on how much the cells have, or had, changed compared to normal cells. This can be called the ‘grade’ of cell changes.
Low-grade changes rarely turn into cancer. Most cases clear up by themselves. High-grade changes are more likely to turn into cancer than low-grade changes.
It is important to remember that cell changes are not cancer. If you have them, or have had them before, it does not mean you will get cancer. It just means you are at more risk of getting cancer compared to someone who doesn’t have cell changes.
However, we understand that you might be worried. If you’d like to talk through how you’re feeling, you can call our Helpline on 0808 802 8000. Our opening hours are listed here. You may also find it useful to talk to your doctor or nurse.
If you have, or have had, cervical cancer, there is a higher risk of getting another cancer linked to high-risk HPV. There is not much evidence on how big this risk is.
No, this does not mean your partner has been unfaithful. It is hard to know who you got HPV from, or when. This is because HPV can be ‘dormant’ or ‘clinically insignificant’. This means it can be in your body for a long time without causing any problems or being picked up by a test. It might become active later and then found with a test, even if you’ve been with a partner for many years.
It may be possible for two people in a monogamous relationship to both have the same type of HPV for a long time. However, this does not mean that it will cause symptoms or problems.
It also does not mean that you or your partner will have cell changes or get cancer. It might help to remember that nearly all people who have had sexual contact will get HPV at some point in their life.
Reinfection might happen within couples because different people can have different levels of natural immunity to HPV. Natural immunity is when your body remembers a virus from when you got it naturally in the past. If you get that virus again, your body can destroy it before it causes problems.
Studies show natural immunity to HPV can be low for some of us. This means that reinfection might happen within couples.
Although they don’t fully protect against HPV, condoms and dental dams (thin plastic square used to cover the anus or vagina during oral sex) can reduce your risk of HPV infection. Evidence suggests the HPV vaccine also protects you from HPV reinfection.
We understand that it might be upsetting to think about passing on HPV. If you’d like to talk about how you’re feeling, our Helpline volunteers are here to listen. You can call for free on 0808 802 8000. Our opening hours are here.
Anyone who has ever had any sexual contact can get HPV. Sexual contact includes:
It is possible to get HPV if you have only had sexual contact with one person. Sexual contact includes:
This is because your partner may have had more than one sexual contact. HPV is a common virus and is spread by skin-to-skin contact. 8 in 10 of us will have HPV at some point in our lives. The highest rates of HPV are in sexually active people up to the age of 25. But you can get HPV at any age.
Having HPV isn’t a sign that someone has had sexual contact with a lot of people. It also doesn’t mean someone has been unfaithful to a partner.
The risk of getting HPV increases with the number of sexual partners someone has, or the number of sexual partners their partner has had. But that is just because there is a higher chance of being exposed to HPV.
Yes, you could still get HPV. This is because it is passed is on through skin-to-skin contact. This means you can get it without having penetrative sex. You can get it through oral sex, touching in the genital area and sharing sex toys.
Using barrier protection helps reduce your chance of getting HPV. This includes using:
However, these won’t completely get rid of the risk. This is because HPV lives on the skin in and around the whole genital area. Condoms and dental dams only cover some of your genitals.
In men, women and people with a cervix, genital HPV can affect the:
Other forms of contraception, such as oral contraceptive pills, do not protect against HPV.
Yes — anybody who has ever been sexually active may have HPV. In most cases, your body gets rid of HPV within 2 years. But sometimes it can stay in our bodies for longer without causing any problems or showing up with a test. This is called ‘dormant’ or ‘clinically insignificant’ HPV.
This HPV can become active again. It may start to cause cell changes in the cervix. This active HPV would be detected with a test.
It is completely up to you. There is no official guidance or recommendation that you should tell anyone if you have HPV.
If you do want to have that conversation, it may be helpful to have this information with you. You may also want to call our free Helpline on 0808 802 8000 — our trained volunteers can talk you or your partner through HPV. You can find our opening hours here.
HPV can be a confusing topic — we're here to help if you feel worried or unsure about it:
We cannot give you medical advice or answers about any results. In this case, it is best to speak with your GP or nurse.
Thank you to all the experts who checked the accuracy of this information, and the volunteers who shared their personal experience to help us develop it.
We write our information based on literature searches and expert review. For more information about the references we used, please contact [email protected]