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How people get HPV

 

How do people get HPV?

People usually get HPV through skin-to-skin contact. For the types of HPV that affect the genitals, this includes:

  • vaginal sex
  • anal sex
  • oral sex
  • touching in the genital area.

HPV can also be passed on through:

  • sharing sex toys.

 

Am I at risk of getting HPV?

If you have ever had any kind of sexual contact — not just penetrative sex — you may have HPV. About 8 in 10 people will get HPV at some point in their life. It usually goes away within 2 years.

 

 

Reducing your risk of HPV

You can’t completely protect against HPV. But there are ways you can lower your risk of getting it. 

Try to stop smoking

In the UK, about 2 in 10 cervical cancers are linked to smoking tobacco. Smoking can make your immune system weaker. This makes it hard to fight infections like HPV. If you’d like to quit smoking, the NHS has programmes to support you:

HPV vaccine

You may be able to get the HPV vaccine. Your GP will be able to tell you if you are eligible. The HPV vaccines used by the NHS help protect against the HPV types that cause more than 7 in 10 cervical cancers and 9 in 10 cases of genital warts. They work best before someone has had any sexual contact.

Read more about the HPV vaccine >

Try to have safe sex

Barrier protection such as condoms and dental dams help lower your risk of getting HPV. However, they do not completely protect against it. 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.

 

How do I get rid of HPV?

There is no treatment for HPV. But your immune system will usually get rid of it without it causing any problems. In 9 in 10 people, this happens within 2 years.

If you have HIV, it might be hard for your body to get rid of HPV. This means you will be invited to cervical screening once a year.

Read more about cervical screening >

 

Who did I get HPV from?

You can have HPV for a long time without knowing about it. This means it is difficult to know when you got HPV or who you got it from. 

HPV in long-term relationships

Having HPV does not mean that your partner has been unfaithful. Your immune system usually gets rid of HPV. But the virus can sometimes stay in your body without causing any problems or being detected with a test. This is called ‘dormant’ or ‘clinically insignificant’ HPV.

Sometimes dormant HPV can become active again. We don’t know exactly why this happens yet, but it might be affected by changes in your immune system. Active HPV may cause cervical cells to change. HPV that becomes active again can be found with a test.

Because HPV can stay dormant in your body without being detected, it is possible that you got it many years — even decades — ago but never knew you had it.

We understand that this can be worrying, and you might feel nervous about talking to your partner about HPV. If you want to talk with them, it may help to have this information with you, so you can go through it together. You can also call our free Helpline on 0808 802 8000. You can find our opening hours here.

 

More information and support

We know that HPV can be worrying and confusing. If you have questions or want support explaining things to a partner, we are here for you:

  • We answer some common questions about HPV on our HPV FAQs page
  • For emotional support, call our free Helpline on 0808 802 8000 — our opening hours are here
  • Join our online Forum to talk with other people

We cannot give you medical advice or answers about any results. In this case, it is best to speak with your GP or nurse.

We would like to thank all the experts who checked the accuracy of this information, and the volunteers who shared their personal experience to help us develop it.

References

  • Royal College of Nursing. 2020. Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Cervical Screening and Cervical Cancer.
  • World Health Organization. Regional Office for Europe. 2020. Questions and answers about human papillomavirus (‎HPV)‎.
  • UK Health Security Agency. 2022. Immunisation against infectious disease – Chapter 18a: Human papillomavirus (HPV).
  • Elisia I, et al. 2020. The effect of smoking on chronic inflammation, immune function and blood cell composition. Sci Rep. 10(1):19480.
  • Falcaro M, et al. 2021. The effects of the national HPV vaccination programme in England, UK, on cervical cancer and grade 3 cervical intraepithelial neoplasia incidence: a register-based observational study. Lancet. 398(10316):2084–2092
  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). 2022. Scenario: Cervical screening.
  • Malagón T, et al. 2022. Proportion of incident genital human papillomavirus detections not attributable to transmission and potentially attributable to latent infections: implications for cervical cancer screening. Clin Infect Dis. 75(3):365–371.

 

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

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HPV testing >

Is there a test for HPV? Read about the types of HPV testing.

Date last updated: 
11 May 2023
Date due for review: 
11 May 2026
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