In 30 seconds…
HPV (Human Papillomavirus) is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that affects most people at some point in their lives, particularly when they’ve just become sexually active.
It’s completely possible to become infected and not know it, as the virus has no symptoms itself. Around 90% of HPV infections will be fought off by your body within 2 years.
However, certain types of HPV can lead to genital warts or, less commonly, to some kinds of cancer. An NHS vaccination programme is helping to build up immunity to these strains of HPV. This was historically for girls aged 12-13 years for cervical cancer prevention, but it is now also authorised for boys of the same age.
HPV (Human Papillomavirus) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, and the majority of us will catch it at some point in our lives – maybe without ever knowing about it.
But HPV can lead to skin conditions such as genital warts or, more rarely, cancer. Though no treatment exists to tackle the virus once you’ve been infected, an NHS HPV vaccination programme is aiming to build up greater immunity among men and women.
In this article, we examine the essential facts about HPV: causes, symptoms, treatment for HPV-related conditions, and prevention.
How Common is HPV?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), HPV is “the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract”. HPV in men and women affects 1 in 3 people in the UK at any given time, and 90% of people in this country will come into contact with the virus at some point in their lives. The picture is similar in the US, with an estimated 75% of reproductive-age people exposed to HPV.
What Causes HPV?
HPV is spread via skin-to-skin contact in the genital area. So engaging in vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an infected person can cause you to catch HPV – as can sharing sex toys.
The peak time to become infected with HPV is shortly after you become sexually active. You’re more at risk if you have multiple sexual partners, as the chance of contact with the virus is increased. Other risk factors include a weakened immune system and damaged skin.
There’s little scientific evidence to suggest that kissing can spread HPV, although research is ongoing. It’s also not possible to catch the virus by sharing towels or toilet seats.
Symptoms of HPV
HPV itself has no visible symptoms, but there are over 100 different types of HPV, and certain varieties can lead to skin conditions. Most commonly, HPV can cause genital warts; however, it can also cause changes in the skin cells that have the potential to develop into forms of cancer.
Types 6 and 11 of HPV are responsible for 90% of cases of genital warts; these types are not linked to cancer, but they are highly infectious.
Genital warts are growths or lumps that can develop in the area of your penis or anus. They are not normally painful, but they can be itchy or uncomfortable. You may not be able to see any obvious lumps, but if you experience persistent itching or bleeding around your penis or anus it’s important to seek medical advice – these could be signs you have genital warts.
If your sexual partner has been diagnosed with genital warts, you should also get checked out, even if you have no symptoms. It’s actually possible to be infected with genital warts and not experience symptoms for over a year.
Certain types of HPV, particularly types 16 and 18, can cause changes in the skin cells that lead to cancer. With HPV in men, possible cancers are: penile cancer, anal cancer, and oropharyngeal (mouth/throat) cancer.
In fact, HPV is thought to be responsible for the majority of cases of these cancers. Worldwide, around 5% of cancers are caused by HPV. With penile cancer, 63% of cases are linked to HPV, along with 91% of anal cancer cases and 70% of oropharyngeal cases.
In the US, it’s been noted that 90% of new cases of oropharyngeal cancer are caused by HPV, rather than the traditional risk factors of smoking tobacco and high alcohol consumption.
How is HPV Treated?
While there’s no cure for the HPV virus itself, 90% of infections are fought off by the body within 2 years.
If you’ve been infected with genital warts as a result of HPV, several different treatments are available. A cream or liquid can be applied to the affected area, the warts can be surgically removed via cutting or a laser, or they can be frozen. Treatments can take several weeks or months to work, and there is a possibility that the warts will come back.
It’s advised that you don’t have sex while undergoing treatment for genital warts, as this will reduce the risk of your passing on the infection. In addition, some cream treatments may affect condoms or other barrier methods of contraception, making them less effective.
If you’re diagnosed with a form of cancer caused by HPV, treatment will depend on how advanced the cancer is and what area of your body is affected. Surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy may be used.
How Can I Prevent HPV?
Using a condom when you have sex provides some protection against HPV. However, it can’t prevent infection entirely, as some skin-to-skin contact is still inevitable.
The best method for preventing HPV is vaccination. Since 2019, the NHS has offered an HPV vaccine to all 12- or 13-year olds in England (boys and girls), as ideally protection should be in place before you’re sexually active.
The vaccine, a drug called Gardasil, helps protect against types 6, 11, 16, and 18 of HPV. Gardasil-9 is available in certain private clinics, too. It provides a catchup for certain overseas patients who do not have a national vaccination programme or missed out on the vaccination when growing up.
The vaccine is also available at some sexual health clinics if you are a man (cis- or transgender) of 45 years old or younger, who has sex with men. That’s because you’re part of a group that hasn’t benefited from increased immunity among women (girls have been receiving the vaccine since 2008).
HPV is experienced by the vast majority of people across the world at some point in their lives, and most won’t have any adverse symptoms. Certain types of HPV in men can lead to genital warts in the area of the penis or anus, and other types can, in rare cases, cause cancer of the penis, anus, mouth or throat.
With the NHS’s vaccination programme extended to boys as well as girls, we should see a drop in HPV-related medical conditions in the next few years. Men who are eligible for the vaccine might consider getting the jab, but otherwise practising safe sex is the best way to protect against HPV.