Information on HPV in women
- What is HPV?
- Causes of HPV in females
- HPV symptoms in women
- Can you cure HPV?
- The HPV vaccine
- How effective is the HPV vaccine?
- Why women could benefit from the HPV vaccine
- Benefits of the HPV vaccine for girls
- Common side effects of the HPV vaccine in women
- Less common side effects of the HPV vaccine
- What age can a girl get the HPV vaccine?
- Does the NHS offer free HPV vaccinations to anyone else?
What is HPV?
HPV is a common virus which can affect anyone. It's though that around 80% of sexually active people will have been infected by the virus at some point in their life.
There over 100 different types of the virus. Certain strains of HPV can cause warts on the inside or outside of the penis, female genitals or anus. It can also cause cell changes which can lead to cancers of cervix, vagina, anus, mouth or throat.
Causes of HPV in females
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is spread through close skin-to-skin contact, usually during sexual activity. HPV affects the skin and moist membranes of the body which include the cervix, throat and anus.
HPV symptoms in women
HPV is generally asymptomatic, which means it has no symptoms and you might not know you had it. That’s why, if you have a cervix, it’s important to go for your routine cervical screening, as this will check for high-risk strains of HPV, most associated with causing cancer.
If you have HPV which develops into warts, you might find small fleshy bumps on your hands, feet or around your genitals.
Female HPV-related cancer symptoms
Unfortunately, a number of women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and it’s estimated up to 70% of cervical cancer cases are caused by strains 16 and 18 of HPV.
Symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Pain during sex
- Vaginal discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Unusual bleeding (between periods, during or after sex, after the menopause)
Other cancers that affect women like vaginal, vulval, and some head and neck cancers are also caused by HPV, but these tend to be quite rare.
Can you cure HPV?
Currently there is no cure for HPV. Lots of people's bodies will clear the virus up on their own, but in some people it can lead to genital warts, or cell changes that might cause certain cancers.
The HPV vaccine
Gardasil 9 is the name of the HPV vaccine that protects against nine of the most high-risk types of HPV.
The HPV vaccine can be given to men and women. It's currently offered to all boys and girls in Year 8 in the UK as part of the NHS immunisation programme. But people who were eligible in school can also get it up until their 25th birthday, as part of a catch up scheme.
How effective is the HPV vaccine?
If you have never had sex, Gardasil 9 can prevent up to 90% of genital warts and 89% of cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, or cervix. There is also some evidence that it can help prevent some cancers of the penis, mouth and throat, particularly so if you engage in oral sex.
If you are between cervical smear tests or already sexually active, you can also help to protect yourself by getting vaccinated with Gardasil 9. This can still reduce your chances of getting any of these conditions as it may provide cover against an HPV strain you have still not been exposed to yet.
Why women could benefit from the HPV vaccine
The HPV vaccine can help protect against high-risk strains of HPV which can cause genital warts, as well as cell abnormalities which can cause certain cancers. Gardasil, which was offered as part of the National Immunisation Programme (NIP) until 2021/2022, protects against strains 6, 11, 16 and 18. Gardasil 9 (which we offer at Online Doctor and is being rolled out on the NIP from 2021/2022) protects against these four strains, plus five more high risk strains.
Strains 16 and 18 are the most commonly linked with cervical cancer, and the vaccine has been proved to be over 99% effective at preventing the pre-cancerous cells caused by these strains.
Initially the vaccine was given just to girls in Year 8. Since the vaccine programme begun, it’s been proved to have caused a 90% drop in the number of genital warts cases amongst 15-17 year old girls (who would have been vaccinated at school), and 70% in boys the same age. So the boys are also benefitting from the herd immunity of the girls being vaccinated. Since 2019 boys in Year 8 are also now offered the vaccine, so the cases of genital warts in boys are likely to go down even further.
Find out more about why men could benefit from the HPV vaccine.
Benefits of the HPV vaccine for girls
The HPV vaccine works best if it’s given before a girl (or boy) is sexually active. This is because HPV is such a common infection, as many as eight in 10 of us will have it in our lives, and it’s passed through sexual contact. So they’re less likely to have had contact with HPV if they haven’t been sexually active yet.
Girls getting the HPV vaccine will protect them against cancers associated with HPV (e.g. cervical cancer, vaginal, vulval and anal cancers). It will also give them some protection against genital warts.
Common side effects of the HPV vaccine in women
Like with all vaccinations, some people will experience side effects after getting it. Common side effects include:
Redness, swelling or ache near the injection
You might have a sore arm after having the injection and some people might experience redness or swelling where the injection went in. This should pass within a couple of days.
Some people might experience headaches after the injections. This shouldn't last long and should be gone within a couple of days.
Less common side effects of the HPV vaccine
Less than one in 10 people will experience:
- Itchiness or bruising where you had the injection
- High temperature, feeling hot and shivery
- Pain in the arms, hands, fingers, legs or toes
A very small amount of people (less than 1 in 1000) might experience hives. And even less than that (1 in 10000) might experience difficulty breathing or problems with their airways.
What age can a girl get the HPV vaccine?
Girls can get the HPV vaccine in school when they’re aged 12-13 as part of the NIP. People up to 25 who missed the vaccine at school can get the vaccine as part of this programme.
Does the NHS offer free HPV vaccinations to anyone else?
HPV vaccinations are generally not available free of charge from the NHS unless you're
- Offered on in school as part of the national immunisation programmes (girls and boys aged 12 or 13)
- Aged 24 years or younger and missed your vaccination at school when you were invited as part of the UK’s Schools’ based programme
- A man who has sex with other men and are up to 45 years of age
If you don’t qualify for the NIP, people aged 18+ can request a HPV vaccine online from LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor.
As mentioned above it’s best to get the vaccine before you’re sexually active, but you can get it at any stage. The vaccine won’t fight off any HPV already in your system, but it will protect you against HPV you come into contact with, in the future.
Find out more about the age to get the HPV vaccine.