Human papilloma virus (HPV)

Human papilloma viruses (HPV) are a group of common infections. Some types can increase the risk of developing cancer.

What is HPV?

The human papilloma viruses (HPVs) are a group of common infections. They can affect the skin and the moist lining inside parts of the body (mucous membranes). They commonly affect areas such as inside the mouth, throat, genital area or anus.

There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some cause warts and verrucas. Others increase the risk of developing different types of cancer. These types are called high-risk HPV.

Most people have HPV at some point in their life. Usually the virus causes no harm and there are no symptoms, so you may not even know you have it.

HPV and cancer

Most types of HPV are not linked to cancer. But some types of high-risk HPV can increase the risk of:

Most people affected by high-risk HPV will not develop cancer. Usually the body’s immune system gets rid of the virus naturally. But for some people, the immune system does not clear the infection. We do not know exactly why that is. If the virus stays in the body for longer, it may cause damage to cells. Over a long time, these abnormal cell changes may develop into cancer.

How HPV spreads

HPV spreads from person to person on the skin during sex. It can be passed on through any type of sexual contact. Using a condom or other barrier contraception may reduce the risk of infection with HPV, but it does not offer complete protection.

Anyone who is sexually active can be affected by HPV. This includes both men and women, whether you:

  • have sex with men or with women
  • have had one sexual partner or more
  • are in a long-term relationship with only one person.

Your risk of having HPV may be higher if you:

  • started having sex at a younger age
  • have had a lot of sexual partners
  • have HIV.

We do not know everything about how HPV spreads. It is shared easily between sexual partners, but there may be other ways of spreading the virus too. It is also thought that the virus sometimes stays inactive in the body for weeks, months and even years after infection. This may mean it can become active again many years after you catch it.

Finding the cause of the infection

Some infections that are passed on during sex can be traced to one sexual partner. But it is not possible to know exactly how or when someone caught HPV. This is because:

  • it is so common
  • it is easily passed between partners
  • there may be other ways the virus spreads that we do not know about yet.

Having HPV does not reveal who you have had sex with or what type of sexual contact you have had. Even couples in a long-term relationship can be affected by HPV. Having HPV is not a sign that partners have had sex outside the relationship.

It is thought that HPV takes years or even decades to cause the damage to cells that develops into cancer. Infection is likely to happen many years before cancer is diagnosed.

Are sexual partners at risk?

If you have HPV or an HPV-related cancer, you may worry a partner’s health has been affected by HPV too. This is very unlikely.

HPV is common and easily shared during sexual contact. This means it is likely your partner has been exposed to it. Their immune system has probably already dealt with any infection, and will protect them from the damaging effects of HPV. You are not likely to reduce their risks from HPV by making changes to your sex life.

Partners of people with an HPV-related cancer rarely develop an HPV-related cancer themselves. Partners should still take part in any screening tests offered to them, for example:

  • Cervical screening – Women, and trans men who still have a cervix, should have cervical screening. It is a simple test that checks for abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. This is an effective way of finding and treating any damage caused by HPV before cervical cancer can develop. We have more information about having cervical screening.
  • Anal cancer screening – Anal cancer screening is sometimes offered to people who have a higher risk of developing anal cancer. If you or your partner are worried about your risk of anal cancer, ask your GP, local sexual health clinic or HIV clinic for advice.

Preventing HPV infection

HPV vaccines

A vaccine can be used to help prevent HPV infection. This is usually given as 2 or 3 injections over several months. The vaccine helps your immune system protect you from getting the infection. Vaccines cannot treat or get rid of an HPV infection if you already have it.

Sexual partners of someone who has been vaccinated have a lower risk of HPV themselves.

The NHS offers the HPV vaccine to the following groups:

  • Girls from age 12 or 13. This will reduce the number of girls who develop cervical cancer in the future. The vaccine is given at this age because the girls are less likely to be sexually active or have HPV already. The vaccine is usually given at school, but can also be given at a GP clinic.
  • Men who have sex with men. This group has higher risks from HPV infection, such as anal cancer. The vaccine is available at sexual health and HIV clinics for men up to the age of 45.

Other people may have the vaccine because they have higher risks from HPV infection. For example, if you have HIV, you are more likely to get HPV and have a higher risk of developing HPV-related cancer. Your GP, local sexual health or HIV clinic can give you more information.

The HPV vaccine is also available privately. Ask your GP for more information.

Sexual contact

If you are sexually active, there is no sure way to avoid getting HPV. Many people carry the infection without ever knowing. There are HPV tests, but these are only helpful in certain situations.

You can lower your risk of getting HPV by having fewer sexual partners. Using a condom or other type of barrier contraceptive every time you have any type of sex may help reduce your risk. But this will not get rid of the risk completely.

Having a good immune system

If you get HPV, your body’s immune system will usually get rid of it. You can help your immune system work well by having a healthy lifestyle. Smoking makes your immune system weaker. If you smoke, you are more likely to get HPV or develop an HPV-related cancer.

We have information to help you give up smoking.

Tests for HPV

To test for high-risk HPV, a sample of cells is collected from the affected area of the body. The cells are sent to a laboratory and checked for signs of HPV.

HPV testing is used:

HPV testing is sometimes used as part of anal cancer screening. This means using tests to find abnormal cell changes that are more likely to develop into anal cancer. Anal cancer screening is sometimes offered to people who have a higher risk of developing anal cancer, such as:

  • men who have sex with men
  • people with HIV.

We do not know yet whether anal cancer screening is effective at preventing anal cancer. These tests are not widely available in the UK. Your GP, local sexual health or HIV clinic can give you more information.

Treating HPV

There are no treatments to get rid of HPV infection. In most people, the immune system will clear the virus naturally. People who find out they have HPV through cervical or anal screening tests may be offered ongoing screening. If they develop abnormal cell changes, they may be offered treatment to remove or destroy these cells.

We have more information about treating abnormal cell changes of the cervix.

Your feelings about HPV

Finding out you are affected by high-risk HPV can be stressful and hard to cope with.

You may feel frustrated there is no treatment to get rid of the infection. Or angry if HPV has caused cancer. Some people feel ashamed or embarrassed because HPV infection is related to sex.

It is natural to have mixed emotions, including feeling uncertain or lonely. You may have questions or worry about what others will think. There are not always clear answers. But if there is something you do not understand, ask your GP, cancer doctor or nurse for more information.

Everyone has their own way of coping with difficult situations. You may want to talk about it with:

  • someone you know well
  • someone outside your family and friends
  • people online who are in a similar situation – our Online Community offers this kind of support
  • one of our cancer support specialists for more information and support.