What is HPV?
HPV or Human papilloma viruses is a common virus that can affect the skin and the moist membranes in:
Every strain of human papilloma virus (HPV) has a different number and there are over 100 known types.
- The cervix
- The anus
- The lining of the mouth and throat
The majority of women and men have HPV at some point but as it has no symptoms it often goes away on it own, unnoticed.
However, some high risk types of HPV can cause changes (dysplasia) in the cells of the cervix or the mouth and throat lining which can increase the risk of the cells becoming cancerous.
Other types of HPV can cause genital wart virus as well as warts and verrucas on the any part of the body. These are called low risk HPVs as they do not significantly change the cells.
Who gets HPV?
HPV is passed on by skin contact. The types of HPV that affect the mouth and throat can be passed on through kissing. Genital HPV is usually spread through sex.
Genital HPV virus can remain undetected for years and there's no way to know how long you've had it. People in long term relationships who test positive for HPV have not necessarily been unfaithful. They may have been carrying HPV for years.
HPV and cervical cancer
The majority of women with HPV, even high risk types do not develop cervical cancer. However, High risk HPV types including 16, 18, 31, 33 and 45 can increase the risk of developing cervical cancer particulalry in women with weaker immune systems or who smoke.
Almost every women diagnosed with cervical cancer also has at least one of these types of HPV.
Types 16 and 18 cause approximately 70% of cancers of the cervix. The other types cause most of the remaining 30% of cervical cancers.
HPV and cervical screening
Regular cervical screening will pick up abnormal cervical cells before they become cancerous. Even if you are diagnosed with high risk HPV and you smoke, cancer can still be prevented from developing if caught early enough.
Treatment for cervical HPV
Although visible signs of HPV infection, such as warts, can be removed the virus itself is untreatable - often it will just go away on its own just like a cold virus.
If a smear highlights abnormal cells then a doctor may refer you for a colposcopy - a more detailed examination of the cervix.
Preventing cervical HPV
Using a condom can lower your risk of genital HPV but as the virus can spread through skin contact around the genital area (including contact with vulva and the scrotum) condoms won’t prevent it completely.
Vaccines for HPV that can lead to cervical cancer are now available which will help to prevent this type of cancer in the future.
Girls aged 12 or 13 in the UK are now offered the cervical cancer vaccine. A catch up program also started in England in 2008 to vaccinate girls between 13 and 18. Similar schemes are being introduced in other parts of the UK.