Health conditions

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Four out of 5 people who have ever had sex will have HPV at some point in their lives. In most of us the infection is invisible, harmless and transient – that is, it goes away after a few months without causing any problems.

What is HPV?

HPV is a common virus that affects both females and males. It is highly contagious and can cause a variety of cancers and genital warts.

There are over 100 different types of HPV, which infect different parts of the body. Around 50 types can infect the genital skin, including the cervix (the neck of the uterus).

How do you get HPV?

HPV is spread through genital-skin to genital-skin contact during sexual activity. As viruses are microscopic, HPV can pass through tiny breaks in the skin.

HPV is not spread in blood or other body fluids.

While condoms are an important barrier to many sexually transmitted infections, they offer limited protection against HPV as they do not cover all of the genital skin.

Signs and symptoms

Most people who have HPV do not even know they have it. They may not develop symptoms or suffer health problems. However, HPV infections can cause:

How do I know I have HPV?

The effects of the virus, such as any warts that appear, or changes to the cells of the cervix, can be treated.

Consult your doctor or health practitioner if you are concerned about genital warts because of their appearance, or if they are causing you discomfort. There are a range of treatment options for warts.

If your Pap smear indicates that cells have been affected by HPV, you should have more frequent Pap smears until these cells return to normal. If the changes continue, further tests and treatment may be needed.

Treatment of HPV

There is no cure or treatment for HPV. It will, in the majority of cases, be cleared by your immune system.

However, the effects of the virus, such as any genital warts that appear, or changes to the cells of the cervix, can be treated.

Occasionally, some types of HPV persist in the body. It is unclear why this happens in some people and not others, although some factors (like smoking) are thought to be a risk factor.

HPV and cervical cancer

HPV can cause changes to the cells on a woman’s cervix and in rare cases, lead to cervical cancer.

High-risk HPV types 16, 18 and 45 are most commonly linked to cervical cancer and nearly every case of cervical cancer has been shown to be caused by these viruses.

The biggest risk factor for cervical cancer is not having a quick and simple test called a Pap smear, which is used check the health of the cells of the cervix.

In Western Australia, all women are invited to have a Pap smear every 2 years.

How can HPV be prevented?

The HPV vaccine can protect against some of the most common types of HPV. Condoms may not fully protect against HPV transmission as HPV can infect areas that are not covered by the condom.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222

Remember

  • Four out of 5 people who have ever had sex will have HPV at some point in their lives.
  • HPV affects both females and males.
  • HPV is linked with cervical cancer in women.

Acknowledgements
WA Cervical Cancer Prevention Program | Public Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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