What is the HPV virus?
Human papilloma viruses are known as HPV. They can affect the skin and the moist membranes that line parts of the body, including
- The lining of the mouth and throat
- The vulva
- The cervix
- The vagina
- The anus
There are more than 100 different types (or strains) of human papilloma virus (HPV). Each type has a different number.
HPV is common. Most people have the virus at some time in their lives. For most people it causes no symptoms and goes away on its own. It is much more common in young people, probably because we develop immunity to the virus as we get older.
Some types of HPV can cause changes in the cells of the cervix or the lining of the mouth and throat. They are known as high risk HPVs. Doctors call these cell changes dysplasia. The changed cells have an increased risk of becoming cancerous.
Other types of HPV can cause warts and verrucas. These types of HPV are sometimes called the wart virus or genital wart virus and they include types 6 and 11. Warts and verrucas are most common on the hands and feet, in the genital area and around the anus. But they can be on any part of the body. Types of HPV that cause warts and verrucas do not usually cause cell changes that may develop into cancer. They are called low risk HPVs.
Types of HPV that affect the skin can be passed on by skin contact with an affected person. The types of HPV that affect the mouth and throat can be passed on through certain sexual behaviours such as open mouth kissing and oral sex. Genital HPV is usually spread through intimate, skin to skin, contact during sex. The risk increases with the number of sexual partners a person has.
You can have the genital HPV virus for years and not have any sign of it. So it isn’t unusual to have a long term partner and then be told you have the virus after medical tests such as cervical screening. Many people then worry that their partner has been unfaithful, or will think they have been unfaithful. But finding out you have HPV doesn’t necessarily mean that you or your partner have been unfaithful. There is no way of knowing how long you have had the virus. It could be weeks, months or years.
Some types of HPV can increase the risk of developing cervical cancer, particularly types 16, 18, 31, 33 and 45. They are called high risk types. Almost all women with cervical cancer have at least one of these types of HPV in the cells of their cervix.
Of the different types of HPV, types 16 and 18 cause about 7 out of 10 (70%) cancers of the cervix. The other types cause most of the remaining 30% of cervical cancers.
It is important to remember that most women with high risk HPV don’t develop cervical cancer. We know from research that other factors affect whether you develop a cancer, such as how well your immune system is working or whether you smoke. Women who smoke and have a high risk type of HPV infection are more likely to go on to get cervical cancer.
Remember that regular cervical screening will pick up abnormal cervical cells before they become cancerous. So even if you have HPV and smoke, you can prevent cervical cancer if you go for screening when you are invited.
People with low immunity also have an increased risk of cervical cancer. Your immunity may be low because you take certain medicines for another condition, or because you have an illness that affects your immunity, such as HIV or AIDS. If you have low immunity, it is particularly important to have regular cervical screening.
The NHS cervical screening programme has started to offer women with borderline and mild cell changes a test to check for HPV. Women who test positive for high risk types of HPV are referred for a colposcopy straight away. In women who test negative for HPV, the cell changes are likely to go back to normal on their own so they do not need treatment. They will continue to have 3 or 5 yearly screening depending on their age.
Research into self testing for HPV in women has been found to be safe and the tests are easy for them to use. Researchers have been looking into sending out testing kits for women who do not attend cervical screening to test themselves for HPV. A small trial based in one area in London found that less than 1 in 10 women (10%) did the test when they were sent it. The researchers recommend further research to find out whether the low numbers of women doing the test also happens in other areas of the UK.
There is no treatment that can get rid of the HPV virus. The body normally clears the virus from the body on its own after some time. But treatment can get rid of any visible signs of HPV infection, such as warts. Treatment can also get rid of changes in the cervical cells that may develop into cancer.
Using a condom can help lower your risk of genital HPV but won’t prevent it completely. The virus can be spread through contact with the skin around the genital area, including contact with the vulva and the scrotum.
Vaccines are now available to prevent infection with types of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer. The Gardasil and Cervarix cervical cancer vaccines are licensed in the UK. These vaccines will help to prevent this type of cancer in the future.
All girls aged 12 or 13 in the UK are offered the cervical cancer vaccine. It is up to them and their parents whether they have it. There is more information about the HPV vaccine in the question and answer section.
Many women worry about becoming infected with HPV again after they have had treatment for abnormal cervical cells. Viruses are difficult to treat and your body gets rid of them by developing immunity to them. This may take from a few months to a few years.
Some women worry about whether their partner has the virus and could reinfect them. Men aren’t routinely tested for HPV because the only way for a man to find out if he has the virus is to have several biopsies. Even then, a negative result only means that HPV wasn’t found on those biopsies and not necessarily that he doesn’t have HPV at all. Our bodies clear the virus. So, even if a man has the virus when he is tested, his immune system may get rid of it before the test result comes back.
As there are more than 100 types of HPV, it is possible to be immune to one type but not another. So it may seem that you have been reinfected but in fact you may just have a different type of HPV.
Some types of HPV can increase your risk of developing cancers in other parts of the body, not just the cervix. Not everyone with these types of HPV will go on to develop cancer. These cancers are rare and other factors are necessary before cancer will develop.
You can find more information about this in the risks and causes sections of these cancers.
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