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About HPV

 

  1. Trottier H et al., The epidemiology of genital human papillomavirus infection, Vaccine, 2006.
  2. Koutsky L, Epidemiology of genital human papillomavirus infection, The American Journal of Medicine, 1997.
  3. Cubie H, Diseases associated with human papillomavirus infection, Virology, 2013.
  4. Doorbar J et al., Human papillomavirus molecular biology and disease association, Review of Medical Virology, 2015.
  5. Munoz N, et all., Epidemiologic classification of human papillomavirus types associated with cervical cancer, The New England Journal of Medicine, 2003.

 

 

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that 8 in 10 people will get. It usually goes away without causing any problems.

We also have information on:

What is HPV?

HPV is the name of a common virus. 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). 

HPV is usually passed on through sexual contact, which can make some people feel worried or embarrassed. But it is nothing to be ashamed of. Because HPV lives on our skin, it is easy to get and difficult to completely protect against. At some point during our lives, 8 in 10 men and women will get HPV. In most cases, your immune system will get rid of HPV without it causing any problems.  

Read about how HPV is passed on >

Types of HPV

We know of over 200 types of HPV. Each type has a number and different types affect different parts of the body. 

HPV types are usually split into:

  • low-risk HPV
  • high-risk HPV

Low-risk HPV may not cause any problems or cause minor conditions like warts on your hands and feet, and genital warts. Most HPV types are low risk. 

High-risk HPV is linked to some cancers. It is important to remember that if you have any type of HPV, including high-risk HPV, your body will usually get rid of it without any problems.

Genital HPV 

About 40 HPV types affect the genital areas of men and women, including the:

  • cervix
  • anus
  • vagina
  • skin of the penis
  • vulva and perennial skin (area outside the vagina, including the labia and the area between the opening of the vagina and anus).

HPV and cancer

About 13 HPV types are linked to cancer. These types are called high-risk HPV. 

Having high-risk HPV does not mean you will get cancer. Like other HPV types, in most people high-risk HPV goes away without causing any problems. 

Read more about HPV and cervical cancer >

Read more about other HPV-related cancers >

HPV symptoms 

HPV has no symptoms, which means that many people may have had HPV without knowing. This can sound worrying, but remember that HPV usually goes away by itself, without causing any problems. 

In England, Scotland and Wales, cervical screening (a smear test) now tests for high-risk HPV first, so anyone who has it can get the right care. Northern Ireland will be switching to this test in the future.

Read about HPV primary screening >

HPV treatment

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

Read about genital warts >

Read about cervical cell changes >

Read about HPV and cancer >

HPV FAQs

Types of HPV that are linked to cancer are 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59 and 68. 

High-risk HPV types 16 and 18 cause 70% of all cervical cancers. 

Read more about HPV and cervical cancer >

About 9 in 10 people get rid of HPV within 2 years, without it causing any problems. This includes high-risk HPV that is linked to cancer. If you are eligible, cervical screening and the HPV vaccine can also help reduce your risk of developing cell changes or cervical cancer.

We don't have a definite answer to this question. After many viral infections, people often develop an immunity to that virus that can last for years. However, studies have shown that natural immunity to HPV is poor, so it is possible to get the same HPV type again. This means in some cases, some people will not get the same type of HPV again, but in other cases people will get the same type of HPV again.

We know this uncertainly can be hard, but it may help to remember that your body will usually get rid of HPV without any problems. If you are worried, it is best to speak with your doctor or nurse. 

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 can help detect the virus and any cell changes early. 

Read about cervical screening >

There are tests for HPV for women and people with a cervix, including HPV primary screening, HPV triage and test of cure.

Read about tests for HPV >

 

More information and support about HPV

HPV can be a really confusing topic, so you are not alone if you feel worried or unsure about it. If you have general questions about HPV, we can help:

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. 

References

  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Cervical Screening and Cervical Cancer. Royal College of Nursing. June 2018. 
  • Ranjeva S. L. et al. High HPV prevalence arises by recurring infection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. December 2017.
  • Beachler D. C. et al. Natural Acquired Immunity Against Subsequent Genital Human Papillomavirus Infection: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. The Journal of Infectious Diseases. May 2016.
  • Doorbar J. et al. Human papillomavirus molecular biology and disease association. Review of Medical Virology. March 2015.
  • Trottier H. et al. Human papillomavirus infection and reinfection in adult women: the role of sexual activity and natural immunity. Cancer Research. November 2010.
  • Trottier H. et al. The epidemiology of genital human papillomavirus infection. Vaccine. March 2006.

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

Read more about how we research and write our information >

How do people get HPV? >

Learn about how HPV is passed on.

Questions?

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

Ask the Expert
Date last updated: 
20 Mar 2020
Date due for review: 
14 Jan 2022
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