The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus you’ve probably had but perhaps didn’t know about. This is not as scary as it sounds: HPV is largely symptomless and harmless, and generally goes away on its own.
What is HPV?
Firstly, HPV isn’t a single virus but a whole group of viruses, all of which come under the umbrella name HPV. They affect your skin and moist membranes lining parts of your body – such as the mouth and throat, and genital areas like the cervix, vagina, penis and anus. There are around 100 different types of HPV. Most are harmless but certain types can cause genital warts and potentially lead to cervical cancer.
What diseases does HPV cause?
For most people HPV remains symptomless and goes away on its own. You won’t even know you had it. However in certain cases HPV can cause disease: most notably cervical cancer and genital warts.
- Cervical Cancer: Certain types of HPV can increase the chance of developing cervical cancer, especially types 16, 18, 31, 33 and 45. These are called ‘high risk types’. At least one of these HPV types is present in the cervix cells of the vast majority of women with cervical cancer. Types 16 and 18 cause about 70% of cervical cancers, while the other three cause the most of the other 30%. Remember: most women with high risk HPV don’t develop cancers of the cervix. Other factors include the strength of your immune system or whether you smoke regularly – both of which increase the risk of cervical cancer in conjunction with high risk HPV types.
- Genital Warts: All warts are caused by an HPV infection. HPV causes an excessive amount of a hard protein called keratin to develop in the top layer of the skin. This extra keratin produces a wart. Most warts are harmless and clear up without treatment. However genital warts are the most common viral STI in England and second most common STI after chlamydia. They can be spread during sex and, like other warts, are caused by HPV. Although generally harmless, they can be visually unpleasant and cause distress and embarrassment.
Who does HPV affect?
HPV affects both men and women. It is estimated that up to 80% of people will be affected with at least one type of genital HPV over the course of their life. However, as previously mentioned, HPV is symptomless so most of these people will not even know they have it. Only 1-5 % of people infected with HPV will develop genital warts, although these people can still pass HPV to others.
How do you catch HPV?
Different types of HPV are transmitted in different ways. Types of HPV that affect the skin are transmitted through skin contact with an affected person; e.g. a simple shaking of hands. Types of HPV that affect the mouth and throat are transmitted through mouth-on-mouth kissing and oral sex. Genital HPV is generally transmitted through sexual contact. Gential HPV isn’t only present on the penis and vagina but all over the genital area, including the anus. The chances of catching genital HPV increases with your number of sexual partners. Since HPV is often symptomless you can have it for years without knowing. As such, if you have a long-term partner, an HPV diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean one of you has been unfaithful. The virus could easily have been dormant from before your relationship.
How do you prevent HPV?
Vaccinate! Since 2008, a nationwide HPV vaccination has been available in secondary schools. Between the ages of 11 to 14 all girls are offered the vaccine against HPV infection. An HPV vaccination is also available in private clinics, although for a fee. Condoms help protect against genital HPV but don’t offer complete protection due to the entire genital area being affected by the virus. Having a limited number of sexual partners will also help, but of course this isn’t for everyone.
There is currently no treatment for the HPV virus. However, this is not as bad as it sounds. As mentioned, most infections cause no harm or symptoms and are cleared by the body within a couple of years – you genuinely won’t even know you had it. Even better news: while treatment isn’t available for HPV itself, the effects of HPV can be easily treated. Genital warts can be removed with creams and lotions, and abnormal cells in the cervix, which may develop into cancer, can be treated if detected early. That is why getting regularly screened for cervical cancer is so very important.