The most common HPV misconceptions
Reviewed by our clinical team
HPV, or human papillomavirus, is one of the UK’s most common STIs. While in many cases it comes with no symptoms and will go away all on its own, in others it can cause genital warts or even cancer.
It’s not something to be ignored.
We asked 1,000 people how much they knew about HPV and its risks, to help you understand more about what it can do and how you can treat it.
People know about HPV, but don’t know what it does
According to our survey, 89% of people have heard about HPV - and that’s no surprise. The term covers over 100 different viruses, many of which can be spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex, or even sharing sex toys.
However, 71% of people don’t actually know details of what HPV is or can do, meaning many people could be living with it (and passing it on) without ever knowing.
HPV may cause no symptoms, so prevention is definitely much easier than the cure for some of the conditions it can turn into.
69% of people have never had the HPV vaccine
The HPV vaccine is offered to all children in Year 8, and can prevent the types of HPV virus most likely to lead to cancer. Despite this, we found that 69% of people have not had it, meaning they’re at a greater risk of contracting the virus.
On top of that, 10% of people could not remember whether they’d had it or not. With medical records now all available via the NHS app, hopefully that problem will soon be a thing of the past.
Nearly all sexually active adults will get HPV at some point
Nearly everyone who engages in sexual activities will contract some form of HPV in their lives. However, despite being so common, 69% of people say they don’t know anyone who’s had it, which is further proof of how hard it is to spot.
Because of its lack of symptoms, you’d only know you had it if you were tested, or developed further problems such as genital warts.
HPV tests are usually carried out as part of women’s cervical screening. It’s important you attend these sessions to prevent other issues developing, and to stop you from passing the virus on.
53% of people don’t know if they’re eligible for the free HPV vaccine
The HPV vaccine was brought into place in 2006, and is now offered to all children in Year 8. Two or three vaccinations are required depending on the recipient’s age, and are available free to anyone up to 25 years of age who missed the vaccine in school.
After that age, you can still get the vaccine and it's worth getting it, but it might not be as effective. That’s because by then, you’ll likely have already been exposed to the virus. The vaccine is also available to men who have sex with other men, and high-risk transgender people, up to the age of 45.
If you’re one of the 53% of people who don’t know if they can have the vaccine, we can help you find out.
Use our free HPV vaccine eligibility checker to see if you can book yours.
HPV - fact or fiction?
We asked our survey about some common HPV misconceptions to see much they knew, and how much education was still needed.
True: HPV is a sexually transmitted infection - 44% got this wrong
You can catch HPV through any form of sexual intercourse, whether vaginal, anal or oral. You can even get it by sharing sex toys. The sex doesn’t even have to be penetrative - just having skin on skin contact with someone else’s genitals could be enough to see you pick it up.
False: HPV has no symptoms and is effectively harmless - 40% got this wrong
While most cases of HPV will have no symptoms, it’s wrong to think it can do no harm. If left untreated, HPV can develop into genital warts or certain cancers, like cervical cancer, which could potentially be deadly. That’s why regular cervical screenings are so important, letting you spot any problems before they get too serious.
True: HPV affects both men and women - 26% got this wrong
While it’s far less common for men to suffer from serious problems caused by HPV, they’re still at risk of catching it. This means they can pass it on to women in the future, who could develop complications as a result.
There is currently no regular HPV screening programme for most men.
False: The HPV vaccine is available to anyone on the NHS - 66% got this wrong
The NHS only offers free HPV vaccines to people aged between 12 and 25. For children, this will be administered at school as part of routine vaccinations. You can also get it as part of your cervical screening.
After the age of 25, you’ll no longer be offered the vaccine on the NHS. An exception to this is for men who have sex with men, as they are eligible for the vaccine on the NHS up to the age of 45, as are high-risk transgender people.
False: Wearing a condom stops the spread of HPV - 73% got this wrong
Wearing a condom does significantly reduce your chances of getting any sexually transmitted infection, but it doesn’t entirely rule out HPV. That’s because the virus can spread from parts of the body that the condom does not cover. Just touching the skin around someone’s genitals can put you at risk of catching the virus.
True: HPV can affect people of all ages - 25% got this wrong
Anyone who is sexually active can catch HPV - it doesn’t matter how old you are, or how often you have sex. Even people who have been vaccinated aren’t immune, but they are far less likely to catch a serious version of the virus. That’s because the vaccine protects you against the most severe strains.
50% of people didn’t know HPV could cause genital warts
Genital warts are one of the most common issues caused by HPV, but 50% of the people we asked didn’t put the two together.
Warts can be more than just a bit annoying. They can grow around any area of your body that has been involved in sexual activity, leaving raised, sometimes cauliflower-shaped lumps. Often they’ll be completely painless, but occasionally they can cause itchiness, difficulty urinating, or even bleeding from the affected area.
Genital warts are fairly easy to treat. Your GP will prescribe you with a cream or solution to apply, or recommend the warts are removed by surgery or freezing. If you think you might have them, book an appointment as soon as possible.
83% of people know HPV can cause cervical cancer
One of the most dangerous issues associated with HPV is cervical cancer. When asked, 83% of people said they knew this was the cause. However, their knowledge of other cancers HPV can lead to was much lower.
Only 55% of people knew it could cause vaginal cancer, 45% knew about anal cancer, 42% knew about penile cancer, 40% about vulva cancer, and only 36% realised HPV could lead to throat cancer.
As an initial virus, HPV might live on your body without you ever knowing. But if you don’t get it treated, far more serious issues could become apparent.
Get vaccinated and stay safe from HPV
As HPV is so common, it’s almost impossible to avoid it if you’re sexually active. But don’t let that scare you. By accepting the vaccination when it’s offered and attending regular cervical screenings, you can severely reduce your risks of developing problems from HPV, and can continue to live a healthy, sexually safe life.
We surveyed 1,000 UK-based participants about their experience and knowledge of HPV.