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HPV and cervical cancer

What is HPV?

HPV is a common virus. It is spread by skin-to-skin contact. There are more than 200 types of HPV and about 8 in 10 people will get HPV during their lifetime.

Around 40 types of HPV affect the anus (back passage) and genitals. 14 of these are known as high-risk HPV. This is because they are linked to some cancers.

Nearly all cervical cancer (99.7%) is thought to be caused by high-risk HPV. Over 7 in 10 of these are caused by high-risk types 16 and 18.

Read more about HPV >


Will everyone with high-risk HPV get cervical cancer?

No, having high-risk HPV does not mean you will get cervical cancer.

During our lives, 8 in 10 of us will get some type of HPV. It usually goes away without any problems. Most of us will never know we had it. Around 9 in 10 HPV infections clear within 2 years.

For a small number of women and people with a cervix, HPV will remain in their body. This is called a 'persistent HPV infection' and it can lead to cell changes in the cervix.

Read more about cervical cell changes >


What happens if you get high-risk HPV?


The first picture shows HPV starting to infect the cervical cells. The second picture shows the cervical cells once HPV has successfully infected them.



You get high-risk HPV through skin-to-skin sexual contact,
or by sharing sex toys





High-risk HPV infects epithelial cells in your cervix.
These are the cells that are taken at cervical screening (previously called a ‘smear test’) and sent to a laboratory.

Epithelial cells are always making copies of themselves. High-risk HPV might cause epithelial cells to change (become abnormal), so they don't look like normal cells. When these changed cells copy themselves, the new cells won’t look normal either.


In the UK, your cervical epithelial cells that are taken at cervical screening are tested for high-risk HPV first. If high-risk HPV is found, your cells are then looked at under a microscope to see if they have changed.

Read more about testing for HPV >

Read more about cervical screening >

Read more about cervical cell changes >


What happens when HPV is cleared from your body? (9 in 10 people)


The picture shows normal cells after the HPV infection has cleared.



Your immune system fights the HPV infection.
It is usually gone within 2 years.





What happens when HPV is not cleared from your body? (1 in 10 people)


The picture shows abnormal cells, if the body can't get rid of HPV.


Your immune system cannot get rid of the HPV. This is called a persistent HPV infection. The HPV may then cause the epithelial cells to change. Changed cells can make copies of themselves and the new cells will also be different. They might turn into cervical cancer over time if they are not monitored or treated.



Going for cervical screening means HPV and cell changes can be found early, so most changed cells will not turn into cervical cancer. However, we understand that HPV and cell changes can be worrying. If you would like to talk, our Helpline team are here for you on 0808 802 8000. You can find our opening hours here.


Why can’t everyone get rid of HPV?

We don’t know exactly why. Scientists think it might be to do with the type of high-risk HPV that someone has. It might be affected by your immune system — some people’s bodies find it easier to fight HPV than others. They also think some lifestyle habits, like smoking, can make it hard for your body to clear HPV. It is important to remember that cervical screening can help find high-risk HPV and cell changes early.

Read more frequently asked questions about HPV >

Read more about cervical screening >


How do I reduce the risk of high-risk HPV turning into cervical cancer?

Going for cervical screening when invited is the best way to find cell changes early. They can then be monitored or treated.

Although cervical cancer is rare, it is important to be aware of the symptoms. These include:

  • vaginal bleeding that is unusual for you — including after the menopause, after sex, or between regular periods
  • changes to vaginal discharge — it may start to smell bad or have blood in it
  • pain or discomfort during sex
  • unexplained pain in your lower back or between your hip bones (pelvis).

These symptoms can be caused by a lot of things. They do not mean you have cervical cancer. But you know your body best — it is important to contact your GP if you have any of these symptoms or notice anything unusual for you.

Read more about cervical screening >

Read more about cervical cancer symptoms >


More information and support

Understanding HPV can be complicated. You may feel confused or overwhelmed, but we’re here to support 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 can't give you medical advice or answers about any results. In this case, it's 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.


  • 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)‎.
  • Staley H, et al. 2021. Interventions targeted at women to encourage the uptake of cervical screening. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 9(9):CD002834.
  • UK Health Security Agency. 2022. Immunisation against infectious disease – Chapter 18a: Human papillomavirus (HPV).
  • Roden RBS and Stern PL. 2018. Opportunities and challenges for human papillomavirus vaccination in cancer. Nat Rev Cancer. 18(4):240–254.
  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). 2022. Cervical cancer and HPV: When should I suspect a diagnosis of cervical cancer?
  • Stapley S and Hamilton W. 2011. Gynaecological symptoms reported by young women: examining the potential for earlier diagnosis of cervical cancer. Fam Pract. 28(6):592–598.


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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Date last updated: 
17 Apr 2024
Date due for review: 
16 May 2026
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