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What is HPV?

The HPV virus diagram

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. There are a number of different types of the HPV virus and different types can cause different diseases. Some are called high-risk types and may go on to cause cancer or pre-cancerous conditions in the cervix, vulva, vagina or anus. Others are low-risk types and can cause genital warts.

An HPV infection occurs when the virus enters a type of cell called epithelial cells. These can be found throughout the body including the cervix, vagina and anus. People infected with HPV may not know they have the infection as there are often no symptoms.

How common is HPV?

HPV is a very common virus. Around 80% of sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lifetime. The highest risk of being infected with the virus is during adolescence and early adulthood. Some people can remain infected with HPV for a long time without developing a disease and they may pass the virus on to those they have sex with during this time.

How is HPV spread?

HPV is mainly passed on through sexual contact but can also be passed from mother to child during birth. HPV types that are associated with cervical, vulval, vaginal and anal cancers and genital warts are usually passed from person to person by genital contact. This could be through sexual intercourse or intimate skin-to-skin contact, including oral sex. Although the use of condoms can reduce the risk of HPV infection it does not provide full protection.

The risk of becoming infected with HPV increases with:

  • Increased number of sexual partners
  • Increased frequency of sexual intercourse
  • Presence of genital warts on sexual partner
  • Failure to use condoms

What diseases can HPV cause?

For most people, HPV infection goes away naturally. If it stays in the cervix for a while, cervical cells may begin to change and could, in time, turn into cervical cancer. Infection with HPV could also cause cancer in the vulva, vagina and anus, and genital warts.

Can you be protected against HPV?

You can’t be completely protected against HPV but you can reduce your risk of getting an HPV infection by:

  • Using condoms (condoms seem to protect men more than women)
  • Limiting your number of sexual partners
  • Being aware of any changes or unusual symptoms in your genital area
  • Having cervical smear tests when appropriate
  • Getting the HPV vaccination

Although the use of condoms can reduce the risk of HPV infection, they will not always protect from it. The virus lives on the skin in and around the genital area and is passed on through skin-to-skin contact and not through bodily fluids. However, condoms help protect against many other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as unplanned pregnancy, so it is still very important to use a condom when planning to have sex.

HPV vaccination can help prevent infection from certain types of HPV and can help protect against some of the types that cause cervical cancer, anal cancer pre-cancerous conditions in the cervix, vulva, vagina and anus, and genital warts.

If you get any side effects, talk to your doctor, pharmacist or nurse. This includes any possible side effects not listed in the package leaflet. You can also report side effects directly via the Yellow Card Scheme at: www.mhra.gov.uk/yellowcard. By reporting side effects you can help provide more information on the safety of this medicine.

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Reporting of side effects

If you get any side effects, talk to your doctor, pharmacist or nurse. This includes any possible side effects not listed in the package leaflet. You can also report side effects directly via the Yellow Card Scheme at: www.mhra.gov.uk/yellowcard . By reporting side effects you can help provide more information on the safety of this medicine.