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HPV stands for human papillomavirus and refers to a large group of over 200 viruses. HPV infection often has no symptoms or complications, and most people will be infected with some form of HPV in their life. The majority of HPV infections do not cause symptoms and are spontaneously cleared by the immune system within a few months. However, some strains can lead to warts or contribute to the development of certain types of cancer.
There are over 200 different strains of HPV. Many of these cause warts to appear on the skin, often on the hands or the feet. Around 40 HPV types affect the genital area and are primarily transmitted through sexual contact. HPV types can be divided into high risk and low-risk types.
High-risk strains such as types 16 and 18 are responsible for 5% of all cancers worldwide, including most cervical cancers and some oral, anal, penile and vulval cancers.
Low-risk strains typically do not cause any problems but may cause warts on the hands, feet or genitals. Low-risk types 6 and 11 are responsible for 90% of cases of genital warts.
Most cases of both low risk and high-risk HPV are spontaneously cleared by the immune system without causing any symptoms.
Some types of HPV are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Some types of genital HPV are spread through vaginal, oral or anal sex, and can also be spread through skin-to-skin contact of the genital area or through sharing sex toys.
All women in the UK between the age of 25 and 64 are offered regular cervical screening on the NHS. This entails taking a small sample of cells from the cervix and includes testing for high-risk strains of HPV.
If you are worried about your risk of HPV out with cervical screening, you can take the HPV home test from Dr Felix.
HPV often presents no symptoms, so groups at higher risk of developing complications are offered regular screening. Because HPV is associated with a high risk of cervical cancer this includes all women with a cervix between the ages of 25 and 64. Some clinics may also offer screening to men who have sex with men.
HPV is often undiagnosed as it presents no symptoms and in most cases is harmless.
Genital warts, if left untreated, may stay the same, get bigger, smaller, or disappear altogether. In most cases, genital warts will eventually disappear as your immune system clears the HPV infection, but this may take months or years. The types of HPV that cause genital warts do not cause cancer, so genital warts do not necessarily require treatment. Most people however do opt for treatment as warts can be unsightly, uncomfortable and their removal reduces the risk of transmission.
There is no specific treatment for the types of HPV that cause cancers and, in most cases, your immune system will spontaneously clear the infection. However, you may be offered more frequent cervical screening if you are known to be infected with a high-risk type of HPV such as 16 or 18, or you may need to attend a clinic for colposcopy if you have been infected for a long time.
Be sure that you have read and understood the instructions before you begin taking your sample. For the most accurate results, wait until you are not on your period to perform the test.
Take the Evalyn® sample brush out of the packaging and remove its pink cap. Insert the sample brush into the vagina until the white wings touch the entrance to your vagina. Holding the transparent casing with one hand, push the pink plunger in with the other hand until you hear a ‘click’. Rotate the pink plunger five times, before pulling it back to its original position. You can then remove the device from the vagina. The pink cap can then be replaced onto the sample device, and the whole device placed into the sample bag provided. Seal the packaging and post as soon as possible.
The HPV home test kit uses a sample from the vagina and tests for the presence of strains of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer. Unlike a smear test, it uses cells taken from the vagina rather than the cervix, and tests for the presence of HPV rather than cervical abnormalities.
Infection with low-risk HPV types can cause warts, which typically appear on the hands, feet or genitals. Types 6 and 11 cause 90% of cases of genital warts, which appear as painless raised white lumps around the vulva, penis, or anus. Genital warts may cause symptoms of itching, irritation or bleeding, and may interfere with your normal flow of urine if they are near the urethra.
Infection with a high-risk strain (one that is known to cause cancers) is usually completely asymptomatic. Types 16 and 18 are the most common high-risk types which cause 70% of cervical cancers. Symptoms of cervical cancer include abnormal vaginal bleeding (e.g. bleeding after sex, or bleeding between periods), abnormal vaginal discharge, and pain during sex.
Once the laboratory receives your sample, it is usually processed within 3–4 days. When your results are ready, they will be emailed to you. If you have provided a mobile phone number, you will also receive an SMS message informing you of your result.
If your test result is positive, it is advisable to speak with your doctor. A positive result means you are at higher risk of developing cervical cancer. However remember that the vast majority of HPV infections, including high-risk types, are spontaneously cleared by your immune system without any complications. You may be offered a cervical smear test right away or you may be offered more frequent cervical screening with testing for HPV.
There is no cure for HPV, but most people’s immune system will clear the virus within 2 years.
There is no treatment for HPV itself and most infections are cleared easily from the body within 2 years. Treatment for the complications of HPV infection (i.e. genital warts and cancer) is available.
The best way to avoid HPV is to protect yourself as best you can by using condoms during sex and avoiding unprotected sexual contact. The HPV vaccine provides additional protection against certain strains of the virus, including the types which commonly cause cancer and genital warts.
The HPV vaccine (Gardasil) provides protection against HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18. Types 6 and 11 cause 90% of cases of genital warts and types 16 and 18 are the most common types which cause cancer. There is a nationwide vaccination programme which offers boys and girls aged 12–13 the HPV vaccine. Men who have sex with men are also eligible for the HPV vaccine up to the age of 45.
Anyone who has not been vaccinated and does not have any contraindications, may purchase and receive the vaccine from selected pharmacies.
The HPV vaccine is almost 100% effective at preventing HPV infection with the types included in the vaccine if all doses are administered at the correct intervals. It is most effective when administered before you have been exposed to any of the HPV types included in the vaccine. Even if you have had an HPV infection, the vaccine will still provide protection against the types you have not been exposed to.
Many types of HPV are transmitted through vaginal, oral or anal sex, or through skin-to-skin contact in the genital region. However, there are many strains of HPV that can be caught through non-sexual means, such as contact with the skin of an infected individual or with surfaces in public spaces which may have been exposed to the virus.
You do not have to be sexually active to contract HPV. In fact, many of the low-risk strains that cause either no symptoms or cause common warts on the skin are more predominant in children than in adults. HPV can be contracted through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person, or through contact with surfaces that may have been exposed to HPV, such as public showers and swimming pools.
The national HPV immunisation programme was introduced in 2008, offering all school girls aged 12 to 13 vaccination against the virus, including a catch-up campaign that aimed to immunise all girls ages 14 to 18. The vaccine programme was extended to also include boys in 2018. Anyone under the age of 25 is eligible for the vaccine on the NHS if they did not receive the vaccine at school. The vaccine is now also offered to all men who have sex with men under the age of 45.
Out with the vaccine schedule, those between the ages of 25 and 45 can purchase the vaccine from many pharmacies. You may need more than 2 doses for maximum protection.
Both men and women can contract HPV, and most cases are harmless and present no symptoms.
Currently, the only approved HPV tests are for women only as they screen for the presence of HPV in the vagina, as this increases the risk of cervical cancer, cancer most commonly associated with HPV.
HPV is a group of viruses and is not a type of cancer. However, it can cause changes to cells which may result in cancer, including cervical, anal, vulval and vaginal cancer, cancer of the penis and cancer of the head and neck.
Yes, both the test and the results are entirely confidential. Each test kit is posted in discreet packaging with no information as to what’s inside.
Test kits are dispatched in plain, discreet packaging, so no one will be able to tell what is inside.
This test involves taking a sample from the vagina, so it can only be used by women or people with a vagina. There is currently no approved test for HPV in men. If you are male and you think you may be infected with HPV, you should speak with your doctor.
Infection with some strains of HPV (mainly types 16 and 18) is associated with a higher risk of cervical cancer in women. HPV can also lead to anal cancer, cancer of the penis and head and neck cancer.
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