Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the name for a group of viruses that affect the skin and the moist membranes lining the body, for example, in the cervix, anus, mouth and throat.
There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some types of HPV can cause:

  • abnormal tissue growth and other changes to cells within the cervix, which can lead to cervical cancer

  • genital warts, which is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the UK
  • other, less common but serious cancers, including cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (back of throat including base of tongue and tonsils)

Other types can cause minor problems, such as common skin warts and verrucas.

HPV is passed on through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex. HPV may also be passed on during oral sex and genital-to-genital contact. HPV can be passed on even when the infected partner has no signs or symptoms.

A person can have HPV even if years have passed since he or she had sexual contact with an infected person. Most people do not realise they are infected or that they are passing the virus on to a partner. It is also possible to get more than one type of HPV. Rarely, a pregnant woman with genital HPV can pass HPV to her baby during delivery.

HPV can cause normal cells on infected skin to turn abnormal. Most of the time, you cannot see or feel these cell changes. In most cases, the body’s immune system fights off HPV and the infected cells then go back to normal. In cases when the body does not fight off HPV, it can cause visible changes in the form of genital warts or cancer. Warts can appear within weeks or months after getting HPV whilst Cancer often takes years to develop.

Practising safe sex by using condoms can help prevent genital HPV infection. However, HPV can be present all over the area around the genitals and anus. As condoms do not cover all the genital area the HPV infection can still be passed on. If you’ve been treated for genital warts, you should use a condom for three to six months after your treatment finishes. This will help to stop you and your partner being re-infected.

Cervarix is the vaccine routinely offered by the NHS to girls aged 12 and 13 in the UK to protect against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. The HPV vaccine is also being offered to girls aged 13-18 through a three-year catch-up programme. The HPV vaccination programme is being delivered mainly through secondary schools. Three injections of the vaccine are given over a six-month period by a nurse.

HPV vaccination does not replace the need for regular cervical smear tests in women who are aged between 25 and 65.