Human papilloma virus (HPV)

The human papilloma viruses (HPVs) are a group of common infections. Some types (called high-risk HPV) may increase the risk of cancer of the:

  • cervix
  • vulva
  • vagina
  • anus
  • head and neck
  • penis.

Most people with HPV will not develop cancer. Usually the body gets rid of HPV. It causes no harm and you may not even know you had it. For some people, HPV stays in the body causing cell damage that may eventually develop into cancer.

HPV spreads through skin contact during sex. Using a barrier contraception may reduce the risk of infection but does not offer complete protection. There are no treatments to get rid of HPV infection. The NHS offers vaccines to prevent HPV for some groups of people.

HPV testing is used:

  • during cervical screening to find abnormal changes that are more likely to develop into cancer
  • after treatment for abnormal cells of the cervix to check that treatment has been successful
  • during diagnosis of some types of head and neck cancer to help plan treatment.

HPV testing is sometimes also used as part of anal cancer screening.

If you are worried about HPV and cancer, talk to your GP or call us on 0808 808 00 00.

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 can cause warts and verrucas. Others (called high-risk HPV) are known to increase the risk of developing different types of cancer.

Most people will 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. However, some types of high-risk HPV can increase the risk of:

It is important to remember that most people affected by high-risk HPV will not develop cancer. Usually the body’s immune system gets rid of the virus naturally. However, 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 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. Although it is shared easily between sexual partners, there may be other ways of spreading the virus too. It is also thought that the virus sometimes stays in the body inactive for weeks, months and even years after infection. This may mean it is able to 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 HPV is so common and easily passed between partners, that it is not possible to know exactly how or when a person has caught it. It is also important to remember that 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 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.

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

Partners of people affected by HPV-related cancer rarely develop an HPV-related cancer themselves.

Partners should still take part in any screening offered to them. Examples of screening tests include:

  • 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 two or three 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.

The NHS offers the HPV vaccine to:

  • 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. It 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.

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

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 behaviour

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 of HPV, but it will not get rid of the risk completely.

Having a good immune system

Remember, if you do get HPV, your body’s immune system will usually get rid of it. You can help your immune system work well by leading 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. If you are thinking about giving up smoking we have more information that may help.

Tests for HPV

To test for high-risk HPV, a sample of cells are collected from the affected area of the body. These are then 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 difficult to cope with. You may feel frustrated that there is no treatment to get rid of the infection. Or angry if it 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 what others will think. There are not always clear answers but ask your GP, cancer doctor or nurse for more information if there’s something you don’t understand.

Everyone has their own way of coping with difficult situations. You may want to talk it over with someone you know well. Or you may decide to talk to someone outside your family and friends. Sometimes it is easier to talk online to people in a similar situation. Our online community offers this kind of support. Or you can call one of our cancer support specialists for more information and support.

Back to Potential causes of cancer

Low immunity

People with low immunity are at a higher risk of developing some types of cancer.

Viruses and bacteria

You cannot catch cancer from someone else. But some viruses may increase your risk of developing cancer.

HPV vaccines

There are two vaccines currently available across the UK to prevent human papilloma virus (HPV).