Health conditions

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

  • HPV is a common virus that affects both females and males.
  • Four out of five people who have ever been sexually active will have HPV at some point in their lives.
  • Nearly all cervical cancer is caused by HPV.

HPV is highly contagious and can cause a variety of cancers and genital warts.

In most of us the infection is invisible, harmless and goes away after a few months without causing any problems.

There are over 100 different types of HPV, which infect different parts of the body. Around 50 types can infect the genitals, 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.

What are the 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:

Consult your healthcare provider 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 Cervical Screening Test indicates that cells have been affected by HPV and/or that you have HPV, you will need further testing or follow-up. Your healthcare provider will discuss your Cervical Screening Test results with you.

How is HPV treated?

There is no cure or treatment for HPV. It will, in the majority of cases, be cleared by your immune system. Most cases of HPV infection are cleared by the body in one to two years.

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

Occasionally, some types of HPV are not cleared by 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.

What is the link between HPV and cervical cancer?

HPV can cause changes to the cells on a woman’s cervix and in rare cases, lead to cervical cancer. This takes a long time, about 10 to 15 years.

HPV types 16 and 18 are most commonly linked to cervical cancer. About 70 per cent of cases of cervical cancer have been shown to be caused by these types of HPV.

The biggest risk factor for cervical cancer is not having regular cervical screening, which is a quick and simple test that checks the health of the cervix.

In Western Australia, all women aged 25 to 74 years who have ever been sexually active should have a Cervical Screening Test every 5 years. Most women will be due for their first Cervical Screening Test when they turn 25 or two years after their last Pap smear.

How can HPV be prevented?

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

Since the HPV vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV known to cause cervical cancer, HPV vaccinated women need to have regular cervical screening.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222

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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