Is HPV an STI?

Yes it is – HPV (human papillomavirus) is the name for a group of over 150 related viruses, around 40 of which can infect the genital area. HPV is the second most common sexually transmitted infection in the UK, after chlamydia, and is the most common sexually transmitted infection globally. Both men and women are at risk of HPV infections and the health complications caused by them, which can infect the mouth and throat, as well as the genital area.

There are two main types of HPV – low-risk types and high-risk types. Low-risk types of HPV typically cause no serious health complications, but in some cases may develop into genital warts. High-risk types of HPV do present a long-term health risk, as these infections may cause abnormal cell changes that can develop into a number of cancers, including cancers of the cervix, penis, anus, and throat.

How is HPV spread?

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection – meaning it can be spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. HPV is also spread very easily through prolonged intimate skin-to-skin contact, which means that HPV can be transmitted during non-penetrative sex such as hand-to-genital contact.

HPV can be spread even if you or your partner do not display any visible symptoms, such as genital warts, which is one of the reasons why HPV infections are so common.

You can be infected with HPV without being sexually active – as HPV spreads easily through skin-to-skin contact, it is possible to be infected with HPV without having sex. Prolonged contact with infected skin, such as holding hands, may cause transmission of the virus. HPV infections may also be passed on from an infected mother to their child during pregnancy or childbirth.

Can you pass HPV back and forth with your partner? – unlike STIs like chlamydia, it is unlikely that you will pass the same strain of HPV back and forth with your partner. Once you have been infected with a type of HPV and your immune system has produced antibodies to fight the infection, you will become immune to that type. However, becoming immune to one type of HPV will not make you immune to all HPV infections, as there are over 150 types of HPV.

Is HPV contagious while you have no symptoms? – HPV infections can often display no visible symptoms, even if the virus is active. Because of this, even without any visible symptoms, HPV infections are still highly contagious.

Is HPV contagious while it is dormant? – when the HPV infection is inactive, or dormant, it cannot be spread. However, as HPV infections can display no symptoms even while it is active, it is often impossible to tell whether the virus is active or not.

Is HPV dangerous?

HPV typically displays no symptoms – around 80% of people will be infected with HPV during their life. Most HPV infections display no symptoms and will clear up on their own without any treatment. However, some types of HPV have been linked to genital warts (low-risk HPV) and cancer (high-risk HPV).

HPV and cancer – high-risk types of HPV are the leading cause of a number of anogenital (genital area) and oropharyngeal (mouth and/or throat) cancers, and are responsible for approximately 5% of all cancers worldwide. Most cancers that develop as a result of HPV are caused by two types of high-risk HPV - types 16 and 18. The main type of cancer linked with HPV is cervical cancer, as almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV infections.

HPV and cervical cancer – Cervical cancer occurs when high-risk types of HPV cause abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix, which then develop into pre-cancerous cells. High-risk types of HPV cause over 90% of all cases of cervical cancer worldwide. HPV types 16 and 18 are responsible for approximately 70% of all cases. You can read more about the link between HPV and cervical cancer here. 

Other cancers that can be caused by high-risk HPV are:

  • Vulvar cancer (51% linked to HPV)
  • Vaginal cancer (64% linked to HPV)
  • Penile cancer (36% linked to HPV)
  • Anal cancer (93% linked to HPV)
  • Oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) cancer (63% linked to HPV)

Recent studies have also linked HPV infections to lung cancer, but it is not clear whether these cancers have been caused by HPV.

HPV and genital warts – low-risk types of HPV can develop into warts, including genital warts, which may cause discomfort but typically do not cause any pain or long term health issues. Most genital warts are caused by HPV types 6 and 11. Low-risk HPV is easily spread during sex, and around 75% of those who have genital contact with a partner who has genital warts will get it themselves.

Can low-risk HPV turn into high-risk HPV? – low risk-types of HPV are caused by different types of HPV from high-risk types, which means that even a long-term infection of low-risk HPV cannot go on to develop into high-risk HPV. In addition, being infected with, or showing symptoms of, low-risk HPV such as genital warts does not mean you are more likely to be infected with high-risk HPV in the future.

How long does HPV last for?

It can be up to 2 years or more – most people infected with HPV won’t known that they have it, as most strains do not have any symptoms and the infection clears up naturally. However, as there are over 150 different types of HPV, there is no specific time frame for how long it will take the body to get rid of the infection. Studies have shown that over 90% of new HPV infections, including high-risk types, will clear up within two years.

The risks of HPV last a lot longer – health complications caused by HPV can take years to develop into genital warts or cancer. Some types of HPV that cause genital warts may lie dormant within the body for years and cause intermittent flare ups. Abnormal changes and damage to cells in the cervix as a result of a high-risk HPV infection can develop into cervical cancer over the course of decades, so it is important to regularly attend cervical screenings to detect these changes.

Am I at risk of getting HPV?

It is a very common infection – around 80% of sexually active adults will contract HPV at some point in their life, so it is highly likely that you have already been, or currently are, infected with HPV if you are over the age of 25. However, there are factors that can increase the risk of developing long term health complications as a result of a HPV infection.

HPV is riskier for some people than others – factors which may increase the risk of developing HPV-related genital warts and cancer include:

  • Smoking tobacco
  • Having a weakened immune system (as a result of an infection such as HIV or immunosuppressive medication)
  • Having multiple sexual partners (unprotected sex increases this risk)
  • Having a pre-existing viral infection (such as herpes)

Is there any way to protect myself against HPV?

The HPV vaccine – Gardasil 9, which is a HPV vaccine that protects against HPV-types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. Types 6 and 11 are responsible for most cases of HPV-related genital warts, and types 16 and 18 cause most cases of HPV-related cancers. The HPV vaccine is offered routinely to young girls on the NHS, and will soon be offered to young boys. Men who have sex with men may also get the HPV vaccination on the NHS in sexual health clinics. Superdrug Health Clinics also offer the HPV vaccine privately for men and women up to the age of 45.

Wearing condoms – using protection when having sex reduces the chance that you will pass on any sexually transmitted infections, including HPV. However, as HPV can also be spread through skin-to-skin contact, using a condom cannot guarantee that you will be protected from being infected.

Regular testing and cervical screenings – testing yourself for HPV reduces the chances that you will develop long term health complications by catching the infection early. You can get tested at sexual health clinic, or can purchase a HPV Test Kit from Superdrug Online Doctor. Women should regularly attend cervical screenings to ensure that any abnormal cell changes in the cervix can be detected and removed before they develop into cancer.