HPV infection overview
HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs). One in two sexually active men and one in four sexually active women will acquire HPV at some stage in their lifetime.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the UK, affecting about 73% of people aged 15 to 49 years old.
In most people, the HPV infection goes on to cause no signs or symptoms.
But if it has done so, it can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus, back, throat, mouth, and throat.
HPV symptoms often don’t appear until it’s reached an advanced stage. When you do notice any symptoms, it’s usually in the form of painful or itchy lumps in areas of the body with a direct or indirect sexual route of infection.
Some of these areas include:
- chest, neck, groin
Genital HPV infections are contracted through sexual intercourse with someone who has the infection. They can be transmitted during vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the infection. Genital HPV infections are very common and most people who have them never know it.
HPV can be transmitted to people of all ages, but there are two main types of HPV. High risk types of HPV are known as high-risk types 16 and 18.
HPV 16 and HPV 18 both cause an estimated 70% of genital warts. Most people who get these infections clear them up on their own and do not develop any symptoms.
However, in some people, HPV 16 and/or HPV 18 infections persist, and the body continues to develop lesions. In these people, the virus is moving through the body and causing lesions in places other than the genitals.
When do people develop HPV and how long does it take for them to know?
People with an HPV infection have a very high chance of developing cancer of the genitals, vulva, vagina, cervix, and mouth. By the age of 70, about half of the population will have been infected with some form of HPV.
At least 70% of people will become infected with HPV between the ages of 15 and 45.
Women usually get it when they’re aged 15 to 30, with the first common infection of HPV in women being caught during puberty or later.
Men can get the virus as well, usually between 15 and 35 years old.
In many cases, it takes longer than four to six weeks for the symptoms to show.
Unfortunately, people may not recognize the HPV infection until it’s reached an advanced stage.
HPV is a sexually transmitted virus. It can cause cervical cancer, head and neck cancer, vaginal cancer and genital warts. Although the risk of getting a cancer associated with HPV is higher for both women and men, both genders can get HPV, and many people never develop an associated cancer.
“We can’t predict what will happen, but it’s highly unlikely you will develop cancer,” said Dr. Patti Adler, executive director of St. Joseph Health System (and former president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network) in Arizona.
A person’s risk of developing cervical cancer is much higher if he or she is older and has many sexual partners. However, getting an infection from oral sex, no matter how many times, does increase a person’s risk of developing an HPV-related cancer.
In addition to sexual activity, HPV can also cause infection at a child’s birth or at the time of delivery. For example, transmission from an infected mother to the baby through birth can put that baby at risk for a disease later in life.
Some symptoms can be:
- painful or uncomfortable lumps
- redness, swelling, or fever
- pain during sex
If you have any of these symptoms, you should speak to your doctor.
Can I be treated for HPV or health problems caused by HPV?
HPV is a common infection, caused by a large number of high-risk strains of the virus. It is spread between people through sex and other close contact such as certain oral sex techniques or sharing eating or drinking equipment, and is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the UK.
Treatment for HPV comes in the form of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. It is not possible to treat HPV itself, but it is possible to reduce the risk of the virus spreading further. This includes regularly getting checked by a doctor for any changes to your genitals or the cells of your cervix, and using condoms consistently.
What is HPV test?
The HPV test will help identify if you have the HPV virus and provide a preliminary diagnosis.
It can only show whether you are infected, not how much of the virus you have, which can make it harder to diagnose and treat the infection if it’s at an advanced stage.
You can be given an HPV test through the NHS if you’re sexually active and aged 15 to 69.
Women aged between 25 and 49 should get two HPV tests every three years. Men aged between 16 and 70 should get a test every five years. It may be appropriate to have an HPV test if you are sexually active.
In order to give the test, a sample of your blood is taken. A sample of your cervix tissue is also taken. These are then sent to a laboratory for testing. If it’s positive, the laboratory will test for the same HPV types that were found in your blood sample.
Why do you need a HPV test?
When the test detects the HPV virus, it means you are infected and your doctor will be able to tell you the stage of the infection.
The stage of the infection indicates whether the infection has progressed, or if you are a low risk of developing any symptoms.
In women, it can be helpful to know the stage of the infection because it can help with some future contraception, but it is not essential to do so.
In men, an HPV test can also be used to help them decide whether they need any further treatment, such as treatment for STIs, or cancer screening, such as colonoscopy or PSA tests.
It also means you can ask for further tests to be done if you have any concerns.
How do I take a test?
Before you take your test, your doctor will advise you about how to protect yourself.
Make sure you drink plenty of water, avoid sex during the test, and tell your partner about the test. Keep the test kit in a secure place, and remove any other items you need for your journey to the doctor.
Tell your doctor if you have any concerns or symptoms while you are there, such as fever, swelling or soreness.
What is the HPV vaccination?
As many as eight in 10 sexually active women will become infected with HPV at some point. HPV is common and can be difficult to prevent.
The vaccination (called Gardasil) protects against four common high-risk HPV types (HSV-2, HPV-16, HPV-18 and HPV-6), which are linked to different types of cancers.
To be eligible for the vaccine, you must be aged 12 to 26.
If you are aged 27 and below, you can get the vaccine as well. Women who have had sex with men should also be offered the vaccine.
Where to get vaccinated
To prevent HPV infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends:
- GIRLS, age 11 or 12: The vaccine can protect girls from cervical cancer by preventing an infection from taking hold. Boys, age 11 or 12: The vaccine protects boys from genital warts, which can cause cancer in some men. It does not protect them from cervical cancer.
- Boys, age 13 or 14: The vaccine can protect boys from anal cancer caused by HPV, which can cause cancers of the anus, penis, scrotum and throat.
- Boys, age 15-26: The vaccine can prevent cancers of the penis, head, neck, throat and body of men, women and their sex partners, including cervical cancer and genital warts.
- Pregnant women: The CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for all women — whether pregnant or not — during the third trimester of pregnancy to prevent a variety of cancers, including cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer. It can protect women from infections caused by HPV that can cause cancer of the anus, penis, head, neck, throat and body of men, women and their sex partners, including cervical cancer and genital warts.