What is HPV and how do I get it?

HPV - human papilloma virus - is the name for a group of viruses that can affect your skin, anus/rectum, mouth and throat. It can be passed on by skin to skin contact during sex. Most people will get HPV in their lifetime and clear the virus. But for some people, HPV can lead to cancer—such as cervical, vaginal, anal, penile, head, neck and throat cancer – or genital warts. 

How do I prevent it?

HPV spreads easily, so contact with warts should be avoided. However, it can go unnoticed and so avoiding HPV can be difficult, especially since condoms do not always cover the area where it may be present.

There is a vaccine available that can guard against certain strains of HPV – in particular the strains of HPV that have been linked to an increased risk of cancer. Only certain people are eligible to receive the vaccine for free on the NHS such as young women, trans people, and gay men up to the age of 45 (although lobbying efforts are underway to make it available for all school age children) but you can pay to have it at some private health clinics. The vaccine does not protect against anal or genital warts.

How do I know I've got it?

Whether you have symptoms depends on the type of HPV virus, meaning there may be no symptoms or symptoms may go unnoticed. Some tests are available to detect signs of HPV in the anus/rectum by taking samples from inside (known as a Pap smear test) but these are not routinely available and only offered in certain circumstances (e.g. if early signs of anal cancer are suspected).

If it presents as genital warts, HPV can be found on the inside or outside of the genitals or anus/rectum. Usually white or pink, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes: smooth and flat, rough and bumpy, small and isolated, and cauliflower-like clusters. They are periodically itchy or painful, particularly if you get them in delicate parts of your genitals or inside your rectum. If this happens, they can cause severe discomfort or bleeding when you have sex, pee, poop, or cum.

It usually takes about three months from the time of infection for genital warts to become visible. However they can appear as soon as two weeks, or up to a year after the virus is contracted. Without treatment the warts multiply and spread. A sexual health clinic will look for signs of warts as part of a routine sexual health check-up.

How is it treated?

There’s currently no treatment for HPV. Most infections don't cause any serious harm and are cleared by your immune system within two years, however, some strains of HPV are associated with cancer, so if you’re worried you should consult a doctor.

If you have warts, it can take a long time to get rid of them, and treatments may have to be repeated several times. Treatments include applying creams, freezing them with liquid nitrogen, burning them with acid or lasers, or removal by surgery as a last resort. Untreated warts can spread extensively throughout the genital and anal areas. Warts don't cause any serious health problems themselves, but they can cause irritation and make you more vulnerable to other infections like HIV.


LAST UPDATED: 09/01/2017