The HPV virus

What is it and how is it passed on

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is very common, and there are over 100 varieties of it. Most people will catch it at some point and some types of HPV can cause genital warts or certain types of cancer. 

 

How is HPV passed on?

HPV can live in the mouth, throat or genitals and it’s easily passed on by sexual contact. You don’t need to have sexual intercourse to catch HPV as it’s passed on by skin to skin contact via the genitals, which is why it’s so easy to spread. 

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How do I know if I have HPV? 

In most cases, HPV isn’t a problem and causes no symptoms. These types of HPV will generally disappear on their own. Some types of HPV lead to other problems which include genital warts and abnormalities in cells which can lead to cancer (for example, cervical cancer). 

There is no specific test for HPV but regular cervical scans screen for any changes in the cervix to help detect signs of cancer early enough. Genital warts are visible around the genital area, but are not serious and can be treated. 

 

How can I prevent HPV? 

You can’t fully protect yourself from catching HPV but there are precautions you can take. 

The HPV vaccine is routinely offered to school children of a certain age which protects against cancer-causing HPV viruses. You can also use condoms when having sex, although this isn’t a sure-fire way to avoid it as they don’t cover the entire skin area. 

 

Genital warts

Genital warts are a fairly common STI caused by HPV. They resemble small lumps which can appear around the genitals or anus. You might also experience itching, bleeding from the area or issues peeing. Visit a sexual health clinic if you notice any of these signs so you can get treatment. 

 

Cervical screening 

A common and high-risk type of HPV is the kind that can cause cervical cancer. All women are aged 25- 64 will be invited to regular screening tests to check for any abnormalities in the cervix. If these high-risk cells are present, then you’ll be able to have them treated before they get a chance to turn into anything more serious. These screening tests help to prevent cancer. 

 

HPV and cancer

There are a number of possible cancers that HPV can cause. While this sounds alarming, out of the 100-200 types of HPV viruses, only 14 are high-risk and most cancers are caused by two types: HPV16 and HPV18. This is still not very common though- as almost all sexually active people get HPV which your immune system usually fights off. 

When a high-risk HPV virus persists, it causes changes in the cells in your body which can turn into cancer after a number of untreated years. The type of cancers it can cause tend to be linked to the areas of the body in which HPV is transmitted: the reproductive organs, anus or throat. 

 

Sources

  1. NHS> human papillomavirus: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/human-papilloma-virus-hpv/
  2. National Cancer Centre> HPV and cancer: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-and-cancer

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