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HPV FAQs

On this page, we answer some common questions about human papillomavirus (HPV). 

About HPV

HPV is a common virus that is passed on through skin-to-skin contact. It infects the skin and any moist membrane (mucosa), such as:

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

Read about HPV >

HPV is passed is on through skin-to-skin contact. For genital HPV, this includes vaginal, anal and oral sex. Although it is rarer, HPV can also be passed on through touching in the genital area and sharing sex toys. So if you have ever had any kind of sexual contact, you may have HPV.

Read more about how people get HPV >

There is no treatment for HPV itself. But there are treatments for conditions caused by HPV, including genital warts, cervical cell changes and cancer.

In most cases, your immune system gets rid of HPV within 2 years. But in some cases, HPV may stay in the body for years. 

Sometimes HPV does not cause any harm and will not be detected with a test. We call this dormant or clinically insignificant HPV.

Occasionally, HPV that was dormant can become active again and may start to cause cervical cell changes. This is called clinically significant HPV and would be detected with a test. 

We don’t know why HPV becomes active again, but cervical screening (a smear test) can help detect the virus and any cell changes early. 

HPV is passed is on through skin-to-skin contact. For genital HPV, this includes vaginal, anal and oral sex. Although it is rarer, HPV can also be passed on through touching in the genital area and sharing sex toys. So, whatever your age, if you currently have or have ever had any kind of sexual contact, you are at risk of HPV.

Read more about how people get HPV >

The time from getting HPV to developing warts, cervical cell changes or cervical cancer varies. Although most people clear HPV within 2 years, we know that HPV can stay in the body for a long time before causing any problems. Cervical screening (a smear test) can help detect the virus and any cell changes early. 

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

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 >

Yes, HPV is the same virus. But the HPV types that cause genital warts and the HPV types that cause cervical cancer are different. The HPV types that cause genital warts are low risk, while the types that cause cervical cancer are high risk.  

HPV 6 and 11 are the 2 most common low-risk types. They cause around 9 in 10 cases of genital warts. The Gardasil HPV vaccine that the NHS uses protects against HPV 6 and 11.

Remember, having genital warts does not mean that you are more likely to get cancer.

Read more about genital warts >

No. We know that 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 most genital warts (6 and 11) are called low risk because they aren’t linked to cancer.

Read about genital warts >

HPV, sex and relationships

Although most people clear HPV within 2 years, the virus can stay in your body for many years – even decades – without causing any problems. That means you may never know you had it. 

In some people, HPV can show up on your cervical screening results or start to cause problems years later. The time from getting HPV to developing genital warts, cervical cell changes or cervical cancer also varies. This makes it hard to know when you got HPV or who you got it from. HPV is not a sign that your partner has been unfaithful. 

Read about how people get HPV >

 

We are still learning about how HPV reinfection works between couples. Current evidence suggests that natural immunity to HPV, and going on to develop an immune response that would protect against reinfection, is poor, so there is a possibility that reinfection between couples could happen.

Read about how people 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.

8 in 10 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 penetrative sex, oral sex, touching 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.

Read about how people get HPV >

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.

Read about how people get HPV >

HPV is passed is on through skin-to-skin contact. For genital HPV, this includes vaginal, anal and oral sex. Although it is rarer, HPV can also be passed on through touching in the genital area and sharing sex toys. So anybody who has ever been sexually active is at risk of getting HPV. 

Read more about how people get 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 – sometimes without us knowing about it, as it is not detected with a test. This is called dormant or clinically insignificant HPV. This HPV can become active again, for reasons we don’t know yet, and start to cause cervical cell changes. 

Read about 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 >

HPV and cell changes

Not all cell changes are caused by 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 cell changes >

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 you 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.

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 you can be reinfected with the same virus type. So in some cases the answer will be yes, but in others it will be no.

HPV and cancer

No. Most HPV types do not cause problems and some cause warts that commonly appear on the hands and feet.

About 13 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 7 in 10 cervical cancers.

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 cell changes (abnormal cells) early, before cancer develops. If needed, cell changes can be treated and, in most cases, this is successful.

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

Read more about HPV >

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 >

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 you 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.

HPV and coronavirus

If we haven't answered all your questions about HPV and coronavirus here, we also have a hub of information and support that you may find helpful.

The current evidence does not suggest that you are more at risk of getting coronavirus if you have or have had HPV. If you are worried or want to talk anything through, we may be able to help – call our free Helpline on 0808 802 8000.

Read about HPV >

The current evidence does not suggest that you are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill with coronavirus if you have or have had HPV. 

The people at higher risk of becoming seriously ill with coronavirus are detailed in the government advice for extremely vulnerable groups: www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-on-shielding-and-protecting-extremely-vulnerable-persons-from-covid-19  

Read about HPV >

We know having an appointment postponed can be worrying, especially if you know you have HPV. It may help to know that most people clear HPV within 2 years. If HPV doesn't clear, it usually develops very slowly – over many years, not months – so the delay should not cause any problems.

If you are very worried, contact your GP surgery and ask to speak with your GP or practice nurse. They will be able to give you specific guidance based on your medical history.  

If you want to talk it through HPV generally, our free Helpline is here for you – call us on 0808 802 8000

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. 

References

  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2017). Cervical cancer and HPV Clinical Knowledge Summary. Accessed January 2020.
  • Royal College of Nursing (2018). Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Cervical Screening and Cervical Cancer.  
  • Brown, KF., et al (2018). The fraction of cancer attributable to known risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the UK overall in 2015. British Journal of Cancer. 
  • Beachler, D. C., et al (2016). Natural Acquired Immunity Against Subsequent Genital Human Papillomavirus Infection: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. The Journal of Infectious Diseases. 
  • Doorbar, J., et al (2015). Human papillomavirus molecular biology and disease association. Review of Medical Virology. 
  • British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (2015). UK National Guidelines on the Management of Anogenital Warts 2015. Accessed January 2020.

We write our information based on literature searches and expert review. For more information about the references we used, please contact [email protected]

How we research and write our information >

Cervical screening

Find out what cervical screening is for, who is invited and what to expect at the appointment.

More questions?

If you have questions or concerns about HPV, get a confidential response from a medical professional.

Ask the Expert
Date last updated: 
04 May 2020
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