What Is HPV and How Do You Know if You Have It?

human papilloma virus diagram

What is human papilloma virus (HPV)?

Human papillomavirus, most commonly known by its acronym HPV is a viral infection that’s passed between people through skin-to-skin contact. There are over 100 varieties of HPV, more than 40 of which are passed through sexual contact and can affect your genitals, mouth, or throat.

Is HPV an STI?

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI/STD). In fact, it’s the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US and the UK.

Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV, even if you have had sex with only one person. You also can develop symptoms years after you have sex with someone who is infected. This makes it hard to know when you first became infected.

How can you get HPV?

You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. It is most commonly spread during vaginal or anal sex. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms.

However, because HPV is a skin-to-skin infection, intercourse isn’t always required for transmission to occur.

How common is HPV?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). It’s so common that most sexually active people will get some variety of it at some point, even if they have few sexual partners.

Can HPV cause health problems?

Some cases of genital HPV infection may not cause any health problems. However, some types of HPV can lead to the development of genital warts and even cancers of the cervix, anus, and throat.

Can you get HPV once you have it?

There are more than 150 strains of HPV, 40 affect the genital area. A person can be infected with more than one HPV strain at a time. So if you have been diagnosed with one, you could still get other strains.

Can a man give a woman HPV?

Both men and women can contract HPV from having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an infected partner. Most people infected with HPV unknowingly pass it on to their partner because they’re unaware of their own HPV status.

If my boyfriend’s ex had HPV that became abnormal cells (such as CIN2), am I likely to get it too?

Mr Narendra Pisal, a consultant gynaecologist at London Gynaecology, explains that “CIN2 stands for Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia Grade 2. This is a precancerous change and has the potential to turn into cancer if not treated. Your boyfriend would have been exposed to HPV infection as most cases of CIN3 are caused by HPV.

It is however very likely that he would have got rid of HPV through his own immunity. The likelihood of you getting the same virus and it leading to CIN2 is very slim. Please do not worry but have your smear test on time when called by your GP as per the screening programme.”

How can you tell if you have HPV?

Most people with HPV do not know they are infected and never develop symptoms or health problems from it. Some people find out they have HPV when they get genital warts. Women may find out they have HPV when they get an abnormal Pap test result (during a cervical cancer screening).

Should I tell my partner that I have HPV?

This is entirely your decision. Most people with HPV, carry the infection without ever being aware of it. HPV infection does not need to be treated and in 95% of cases, you would get rid of it through your immunity.

Is there a cure for HPV?

There is currently no cure for an existing HPV infection, as it is a viral infection, it can not be treated by medication, such as antibiotics which are designed to treat bacterial infections. However, for most people, it is cleared by your own immune system and there are treatments available for the symptoms it can cause.

You can also get the HPV vaccine to protect yourself against new infections of HPV which can cause genital warts or cancer.

Note – the HPV vaccine cannot cure existing infections – it is only able to prevent future infections of high-risk types of HPV that can cause cancer, and a number of low-risk types that can develop into genital warts. The HPV vaccine is a preventative measure, meaning it can stop future HPV infections, but it cannot kill the virus if you have already been infected.

Should you get the HPV vaccine if you already have HPV?

In general, patients should be vaccinated before the onset of sexual activity; however, people who have already been infected with one or more HPV types will still be protected from other HPV types in the vaccine that have not been acquired.

It is worth speaking with your healthcare provider or gynaecologist next time you are getting your pap smear.

Why are not all people vaccinated for HPV (even those who already have it) as a way of preventing them from catching other strains?

According to Mr Narendra Pisal “HPV vaccination is supported by public funds. It is therefore essential to use it cost-effectively. The HPV vaccine works the best in teenagers and young people ideally before sexual debut when it is given before exposure to any HPV infection. It can be given at a later stage after 25 years of age but has to be done as a self-funded intervention”.

He goes on to explain that: “The HPV vaccine is routinely offered to all girls and boys age 12 and 13. It was only recently, in the summer of 2019, that the HPV vaccine was offered to 12-13-year-old boys as well as girls. Health officials said this will prevent 29,000 cancers – of the anus, penis, head and neck – in UK men in the next 40 years. For those that are eligible but might have missed the HPV vaccine in school Year 8, it will still be available free on the NHS up until your 25th birthday.”

What are smear tests, and why are they important? Click here to find out

Would the HPV vaccination protect from getting HPV in other areas i.e. anal and throat?

Mr Narendra Pisal answers: “Yes. HPV is the second common cause of cancers after smoking and HPV vaccination will lead to a huge reduction in cancer numbers in both sexes including throat cancers, anal cancers and cervical and vaginal cancers. Vaccination for boys as well as girls will mean that the incidence of HPV infection will fall to a low level. Vaccinating both will also lead to herd immunity providing additional benefit to the population by reducing transmission rates.

How much does the HPV Vaccine cost if you got it privately?

Depending on your age you will need 2 or 3 doses of the HPV vaccine and the cost will vary depending on where you decide to get it from.

Superdrug for example offers each dose of the HPV vaccine at £165. Or you can save money by buying a full course upfront ay £329 for a 2 dose course or £469 for a 3 dose course (price accurate on February 2021).

Boots offers each dose at £165 or a 3 dose course at £475. (price accurate on February 2021).

How do I know if I have HPV?

There is no test to find out a person’s “HPV status.” There are HPV tests that can be used to screen for cervical cancer. These tests are only recommended for screening in women aged 30 years and older. These tests are not recommended to screen men, adolescents, or women under the age of 30 years.

Most people with HPV do not know they are infected and never develop symptoms or health problems from it.

Some people find out they have HPV when they get genital warts. Women may find out they have HPV when they get an abnormal Pap test result (during cervical cancer screening) and others may only find out once they’ve developed more serious problems from HPV, such as cancers.

So it’s important you get your pap smear test done regularly.

Can you get rid of HPV warts?

Genital warts appear when a low-risk HPV infection causes abnormal changes in the skin cells, which develop into painless fleshy growths – and are a symptom of HPV. There are a number of methods available to treat HPV symptoms, however, warts are a consequence of HPV, you are likely to get them back as long as HPV is present.

Treatment for HPV warts include:

  • Topical treatments – applied directly to the wart, and work by suppressing the virus and preventing it from spreading and multiplying.
  • Cryotherapy – visible warts can be frozen off using liquid nitrogen.
  • Acid – The acid is used to burn off the growth by destroying the proteins in the cells of the wart.
  • Surgical removal – visible genital warts may be removed by excision, meaning that the warts are surgically removed and is typically a last resort if other forms of treatment do not work.
  • Electrocautery – genital warts can be burned off using a low-voltage electrical probe, and anaesthetic is usually applied to manage pain during the procedure.
  • Laser removal – The light from the laser heats up the red blood cells in the wart and destroys them, depriving the wart of blood and eventually killing it.

Do not use over-the-counter treatments for genital warts – home treatments that you can buy from pharmacies and retailers, are designed to treat warts and verrucas that are not on the genitals. Attempts to use these treatments to remove genital warts may result in your symptoms getting worse, or could even cause permanent damage to the genital area.

HPV related cancers include:

  • Cervical cancer: Virtually all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Routine screening can prevent most cervical cancers by allowing health care providers to find and remove precancerous cells before they develop into cancer
  • Oropharyngeal cancers: Most of these cancers, which develop in the throat (usually the tonsils or the back of the tongue), are caused by HPV.
  • Anal cancer: Over 90% of anal cancers are caused by HPV. The number of new cases and deaths from anal cancer are increasing each year. Anal cancer is nearly twice as common in women as in men.
  • Penile cancer: Most penile cancers (over 60%) are caused by HPV. Learn about the importance of getting recommended treatments for penile cancer, a rare type of cancer.
  • Vaginal cancer: Most vaginal cancers (75%) are caused by HPV. Learn about symptoms of, and treatment for, vaginal cancer, a rare type of cancer.
  • Vulvar cancer: Most vulvar cancers (70%) are caused by HPV. Learn about new cases and death rates from vulvar cancer, a rare type of cancer.

How do you prevent getting Cervical Cancer?

6 out of 10 new cases of cervical cancer occur in women who have never been screened, or who haven’t been screened in the past 5 years. And yet, cervical cancer is highly preventable and treatable if you get regular screenings.

Using condoms when having sex will also help reduce the transmission of HPV

Vagina Prolapse – Causes, Types, Stages, Symptoms, Prevention & Treatment – Click here to learn all about it

If you have been vaccinated, should you still get screened for cervical cancer?

Yes, definitely! Even if you have been vaccinated for HPV, you still need regular cervical cancer screening because the vaccine protects you against most but not all HPV types that cause cervical cancer. Also, women who got the vaccine after becoming sexually active may not get the full benefit of the vaccine if they had already been exposed to HPV.

If you have HPV should you also screen for anal cancer?

The types of changes that lead to anal pre-cancer are also found in the cervix, vagina, vulva and penis. HPV infection is thought to cause most of these cancers, too. Cancers of these areas which are caused by HPV also have precancerous stages.

If you have, or have had HPV, or any of these other conditions, you may be at a higher risk of developing AIN, and should consider getting screened for it even if you are not experiencing symptoms. There is currently ongoing research in the medical community about who should be routinely screened for anal pre-cancer and cancer.

Types and Colours of Vaginal Discharge and What They Mean – click here to learn more

If you have HPV should you also screen for oral cancer?

Although there are many adjunctive oral cancer screening devices and tests, currently none of them can find HPV positive oral and oropharyngeal cancers early.

Should I be worried if I have HPV?

If you have HPV, there’s a high chance that it will clear on it’s as your immune system will attack the virus and it will likely be gone within two years. Of the millions of cases of HPV diagnosed every year, only a small number go on to become cancer, of which most are cervical cancer.

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