What is HPV?
By: Dr Danielle Robinson
Reviewed by: Dr Rose Abbott
HPV stands for Human Papilloma Virus – a very common group of viruses that do not cause any problems in most people, but some types can cause genital warts or cancer. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus and is one of the most common STI (sexually transmitted infections) within the UK. In fact, 4 out of 5 people will have some form of HPV virus in their life. It can affect all genders and is found in both men and women.
How do you get it?
HPV is very easy to catch through sexual contact. You do not need to have penetrative sex either - you can get HPV from any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area as well as vaginal, anal or oral sex. HPV often has no symptoms or signs, so you may not know if you have it until it is picked up on a cervical smear or you develop genital warts. While HPV is extremely common, the vast majority (90%) will clear the virus within two years. As it often has no symptoms, most people never know they had it.
Does HPV lead to cancer?
There are 13 types of high risk HPV however, the most common ones being HPV 16 and 18. The high-risk HPV subtypes can lead to changes in cervical cells that over time could develop into cervical cancer. In fact, most cases of cervical cancer (99.7%) are caused by types of high risk HPV. High-risk HPV is also linked to anal cancer, cancer of the genitals and some types of head and neck cancer.
While they are the most dangerous, the high risk HPV subtypes generally have no symptoms. This is the reason that smear tests are so important as they can pick up signs of these high-risk HPVs which can be monitored and if necessary lead to treatment to stop any pre-cancerous changes from progressing. This in turn can prevent cervical cancer and could save your life.
This helpful chart from Jo's Cancer trust explains what happens if high risk HPV is found.
Please don't panic. Even if you are asked to get further tests, there is a lot that can be done to prevent high risk HPV and abnormal cells from turning into cancer, especially if caught early. This is why it is important to attend all regular cervical screening appointments.
To read more about cervical screening please check out our Health Article here.
What about low risk types of HPV?
Low Risk HPV types include HPV 6 and 11, which can cause genital warts. An HPV vaccine can also help prevent genital warts. If you think you might have genital warts, then a sexual health can provide treatments for this. For further information about genital warts see our article about them here.
You might have been able to reduce the risks of catching high risk HPVs as well as the HPVs that cause genital warts if you were eligible for an HPV vaccine. In the UK the HPV vaccine is now offered on the NHS to 12 and 13 year old males and females (born after 1st September 2006).
When did I catch it?
You can have HPV for many years without it causing problems. If you have developed genital warts this does not necessarily mean that you contracted HPV recently. Warts can appear at any time from several weeks to months or even years after initial contact with the virus. The average time is three months however.
How long will it take to get rid of it?
Around 9 out of 10 people will be clear of the HPV virus after 2 years. There is no treatment to remove the virus from your body. Any treatment given is directed towards any problem caused by the virus, such as genital warts or cell changes around the cervix. As above, the majority of people will never develop any physical signs of having the virus however.
Smoking can increase the length of time it takes to become clear of the virus and can make you more susceptible to picking up the virus in the first place.
Should I use condoms when having sex?
Some research suggests that it is best to use condoms if you have visible warts, although condoms cannot give complete protection as there is still skin to skin contact even with a condom. It is likely that the regular sexual partner of someone who has warts will also be infected with the virus, whether they have warts or not. Around 3 out of 10 people who are partners of people with visible warts develop warts themselves within 8 months. There is around a 20% chance of passing on HPV to a partner within six months. 80% of the population will get HPV in their lifetime and the majority will never know.
Useful links and references
The Kensa Health Guide to Cervical Smears
Jo’s Cervical Screening Trust - HPV & Cervical Cancer
Cancer Research UK - Cervical Cancer Risks
NHS - HPV vaccine -
NHS - Cervical Screening - Why it is important