What does HPV positive mean?
Reviewed by our clinical team
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a really common virus that can be trasnmitted through sex. There are more than 100 strains (types) and because the virus is passed on through skin-to-skin contact it’s thought that most people will get it at some point in their life.
HPV can cause verrucas, hand warts and genital warts but there are some higher risk types that can cause cell changes that lead to throat cancer or genital cancer, for example cervical cancer.
Luckily, most HPV strains are symptomless and harmless. The majority of the time, the infection will be cleared by the body without causing any problems – and without you ever knowing that you’ve had it. Or you might get verrucas or genital warts.
In some cases, however, HPV can lead to complications including cervical cancer. This is why adult women in the UK are offered regular smear tests (now known as cervical screenings).
If you’ve recently had a screening or you have one coming up, there’s a chance your result may come back as “HPV positive”. Getting this result may be scary, but it’s no reason to panic. Read on to find out why.
What a HPV positive result means
If you live in England, Scotland, or Wales, you’ll have a cervical screening that looks for high-risk HPV (if you live in Northern Ireland, the test and results are slightly different).
At your cervical screening the clinicians will use a special kind of brush to take a swab of your cervix (neck of the womb) to remove some cells. This will then be sent to a lab to be tested for certain high-risk strains of HPV. If the test finds high-risk types of HPV (e.g. 16 or 18) then your result will come back as HPV positive.
There are two types of HPV positive result:
- Without cell changes
- With cell changes
A HPV positive result without cell changes means that you have a high-risk type of HPV in your system, but there it hasn't caused any problems yet. You won’t need any more testing or any treatment at this stage, because your body might actually clear the virus all by itself. To keep an eye on things, you’ll be invited back for another screening in one year.
A HPV positive result with cell changes means that you have high-risk HPV and there are changes to your cervix. This doesn’t mean that you have cervical cancer now, or that you’ll develop cervical cancer in the future. You’ll need to go back for a test called a colposcopy to have a more in depth check up.
Testing positive for HPV more than once
If you test positive for high-risk HPV but you don’t have cell changes on your cervix, you’ll be asked to come back for a cervical screening in one year. If you test positive for HPV three times in a row you’ll be invited to a colposcopy.
Going back for a colposcopy
Getting a result of HPV positive with cell changes means you’ll need a colposcopy. This procedure is similar to getting a smear, although it’s usually done in a hospital and takes a bit longer.
The doctor or nurse will use a speculum and a microscope with a light to look at your cervix. They’ll apply liquid to the cervix to highlight abnormal areas, and may take a small amount of tissue away to examine in a lab. This part can be a bit uncomfortable, but it won’t last long.
If the doctor or nurse can see areas of abnormal cells they may be able to remove them then and there. However, this may need to wait until your tissue sample has been looked at.
If abnormal cells are found during your colposcopy or when the tissue sample is examined, it’s important not to panic. The presence of these cells doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer, or that you’ll definitely get it – in fact, there’s often a good chance that the abnormal cells will go away on their own.
If your doctor thinks the abnormal cells are high risk for cancer, you’ll be able to get treatment to have them removed.
The HPV vaccine
If you’re worried about getting HPV, you might benefit from getting the HPV vaccine. The NHS administers this vaccine to girls and boys in school when they’re 12 and 13, but it’s also available for some adults. For adults who aren’t eligible for a free vaccine, it’s available privately.
If you’d like to get vaccinated privately, you can order your HPV vaccine from Online Doctor, and receive your injections at your local LloydsPharmacy store.
What are the advantages of the HPV vaccine?
The first thing to know is that there are three different HPV vaccines: Gardasil, Cervarix, and Gardasil 9.
All HPV vaccines offer protection against types 16 and 18 – these high-risk strains cause 70% of all cervical cancer cases. Gardasil and Gardasil 9 also offer protection against low-risk strains that cause genital warts.
In addition to cervical cancer and genital warts, vaccination can offer protection against the following diseases:
- Vaginal and vulval cancer
- Penile cancer
- Anal cancer
- Cancer of the mouth and throat
Overall, the most beneficial HPV vaccine is Gardasil 9, as it provides protection against multiple high-risk strains of HPV, not just types 16 and 18.
Can I get vaccinated after testing positive for HPV?
The HPV vaccine does not treat or cure existing HPV. It only protects you from strains that are new to you.
However, even if you have an HPV positive smear you can still benefit from the vaccine. This is because the vaccine may offer protection against different strains, and may help to prevent reinfection with the same strain.
I had the HPV vaccine in school. Would I benefit from getting a new vaccine?
If you had the HPV vaccine in school it would have been Cervarix, which protects against strains 16 and 18 or Gardasil which protects against strains 6, 11, 16, and 18 – the types that are most likely to cause genital warts and cervical cancer.
As an adult, you may benefit from getting the Gardasil 9 vaccine, as this vaccine protects against other high-risk strains of HPV: 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58. Just remember that the vaccine can’t cure HPV already in your system – all it can do is prevent infection from a strain you haven't been exposed to.
And remember: even if you’ve had the vaccine, you should still attend your scheduled cervical screenings.