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HPV is a common virus that people usually get through skin-to-skin contact. In 9 in 10 people, the immune system gets rid of the virus within 2 years.
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People usually get HPV through skin-to-skin contact. For the types of HPV that affect the genitals, this includes:
Although it is rarer, HPV can also be passed on through:
About 8 in 10 men and women will get HPV at some point in their life. If you have ever had any kind of sexual contact, you may have HPV. Sexual contact includes all the ways of getting HPV we mention above, not just penetrative sex.
- Laura, a service user and Jo’s volunteer
You can’t completely protect against HPV. But there are ways you can reduce your risk of getting HPV or developing a persistent infection that your immune system can’t get rid of:
In the UK, about 2 in 10 cervical cancers are linked to smoking tobacco. Smoking can make your immune system weaker, which means it is less likely to protect against disease and infection. If you get HPV, a weak immune system may not be able to get rid of it. If you want to quit smoking, the NHS has programmes to support you:
If you are eligible, think about having the HPV vaccine. The vaccine helps protect against 7 in 10 cervical cancers.
Using condoms or dental dams help reduce your risk of getting HPV, but they do not completely protect against it. Condoms and dental dams only cover part of the genitals, but HPV lives on the skin in and around the whole genital area.
There is no treatment for HPV. Instead, your immune system will usually get rid of HPV before it causes any problems. In fact, 9 in 10 people get rid of HPV within 2 years.
If you have HIV, your immune system may be less able to get rid of HPV. You can speak with your healthcare team about having cervical screening (a smear test) once a year, outside of the national programme.
You can have HPV for a long time without knowing about it, so it is difficult to know when you got HPV or who you got it from.
If you have been with a long-term partner, you may worry that having HPV means they have been unfaithful. This is not true. Although your immune system usually gets rid of HPV, it 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, which means it can be detected with a test and may start causing cervical cell changes. We don’t know why HPV becomes active again.
Because HPV can stay dormant in your body without being detected, it is possible that you got the virus many years – even decades – ago but never knew you had it.
We understand that this can be worrying, and you may 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 may also want to call our free Helpline on 0808 802 8000, so our trained volunteers can talk both of you through HPV.
HPV may stay in your body for a long time – sometimes decades – but be dormant or clinically insignificant, which means a test will not detect it. However, it can become active again so a test may then detect it, even if you’ve been with a partner for many years. Although the virus seems new because it’s the first time you have been aware of it, that doesn’t mean it actually is. So the short answer is having HPV while you have a long-term partner does not mean they have been unfaithful.
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.
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.
Although HPV is usually passed on through sexual contact, we are still learning a lot about the virus. There is some evidence to suggest that, very rarely, HPV may be passed on in other ways, including vaginal childbirth.
It is important to understand how small this risk is. Although it can happen, the evidence shows that affected babies cleared the infection within days or months, and none had any serious conditions as a result.
Thanks to the HPV vaccine, less women have the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers and some other cancers, so the likelihood of pregnant women passing on HPV will become even smaller.
We know the idea of passing on HPV in this way may be worrying, but all of the evidence suggests it is rare and, if it did happen, would not cause any harm. If you are very worried, your doctor or midwife would be the best people to speak with, as they know your full medical history and individual situation.
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.
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 is important to understand as much as possible about the virus, so you can use this information to help you. You may also want to call our free Helpline on 0808 802 8000, so our trained volunteers can talk you or your partner through HPV.
We know that HPV can be worrying and may be a difficult conversation to have with a partner. If you have questions or want support explaining things to a partner, we are here for you:
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]