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HPV symptoms & treatment

dgital image of HPV under microscope

FAST FACTS

  • Around 30 types of HPV can affect the genitals – vagina, penis and anus (bottom).  These are known as genital HPV infections.
  • They are sexually transmitted infections (STIs) passed on through sex without a condom, skin-to-skin contact, or sharing sex toys with someone who has the virus (even if they don’t have symptoms).
  • Symptoms and effects of HPV infections will vary depending on which strain of HPV you have. Some genital HPV strains cause genital warts. These are sometimes referred to as low-risk HPV, because they don’t lead to cancer. Other types, sometimes referred to as high-risk HPV, don’t cause warts, but can lead to cancer.
  • Using male and female condoms, dental dams and latex gloves can prevent you from getting a genital HPV infection.
  • A simple examination by a healthcare professional will show whether you have genital warts. While, having regular cervical screening tests (where available) will help to identify abnormal cells on the cervix caused by HPV, which could lead to cancer.

What is the human papilloma virus (HPV)?

Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the name for a group of viruses that affect your skin (usually hands, feet, face and neck), and the moist membranes of your body, for example, the cervix (entrance to the womb), anus (bottom), mouth and throat.

It’s possible to have more than one strain of HPV at any time.

How serious is HPV?

There are a number of different strains of HPV and they differ in terms of severity – some have no symptoms, go away by themselves and don’t cause any health problems, while other ‘high risk’ strains can cause certain cancers.

There are two main genital HPV infections that you should be aware of.

  • those that can cause genital warts – small growths around the genitals that usually aren’t painful and can be treated each time they appear. They are not cancer and don't cause cancer.
  • those that can lead to cervical, anal and other cancers. Most cases of cervical cancer are linked to an infection with certain types of HPV

Genital HPV infections are very common and are often easily passed on.

If you’ve had sex without a condom, or you are worried about STIs, get tested as soon as possible – even if you don’t have symptoms.

How do you get HPV?

HPV infections are passed on through skin-to-skin contact – often through a cut, abrasion or small tear in your skin.

Genital HPV infections can be passed on through:

  • vaginal, anal or oral sex without a condom (or dental dam), with someone who has an HPV infection (even if they don’t have symptoms)
  • sharing sex toys that aren't washed or covered with a new condom each time they are used
  • close genital contact – this means you can get HPV from someone even if there’s no penetration, orgasm or ejaculation.

If you are a pregnant woman with HPV, it can be passed to your baby at birth, but this is rare.

HPV, HIV and sexual health

  • Having an STI, including HPV, increases your risk of getting HIV.
  • People living with HIV are more likely to get HPV because of their weakened immune system.
  • If someone living with HIV also has HPV, their viral load will increase, which will make them more likely to pass on HIV during unprotected sex, even if they are taking HIV drugs (antiretrovirals). However, if they have an undetectable viral load there is no evidence that HPV makes you more likely to pass on HIV.
  • Some strains of HPV can lead to cervical or anal cancer. The risk of this is higher in people living with HIV. For these people there’s more chance that the virus will become active again because their immune system often doesn’t work as well.
  • Being on HIV treatment (antiretrovirals), with an undetectable viral load, and having a higher CD4 cell count (over 200) can reduce the risk of developing HPV-related cancers.
  • If you are taking antiretrovirals it is important to discuss with your healthcare professional how treatment for HPV may interact with your HIV drugs.

How do you protect yourself against HPV?

  • Use a new male or female condom or dental dam every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex. Remember HPV can affect areas not covered by a condom, so this may not offer full protection.
  • Use a new dental dam or latex gloves for rimming and fingering (exploring your partner’s anus with your fingers, mouth or tongue) or use latex gloves for fisting.
  • Cover sex toys with a new condom for each partner and wash them after use.
  • Remember, the virus is not just passed on through penetrative sex: it can be transmitted through any skin-to-skin contact between genitals.
  • Having multiple partners can increase your risk of getting an HPV infection. If you are having sex with multiple partners, it’s even more important to use condoms and have regular STI checks.

Talking about sexual health, and sharing your sexual health status with your partners can help you have safer sex.

Get vaccinated  

  • In some places vaccines are available to prevent certain types of HPV that can cause cancers and warts. These are often offered to adolescent girls, men who have sex with men and people living with HIV. It’s best to have the vaccine before you start having sex, although it’ sometimes possible to get the vaccine later in life.

Remember, the vaccine only protects against certain strains of HPV, and does not guarantee that you will not develop genital warts or cancer in the future. So it’s important to use condoms and go for cervical screening (smear tests) regularly where available.

  • Have regular cervical screening tests, which can identify abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix (entrance to the womb) at an early stage. These changes can be a sign that you may develop cancer.
  • Avoid smoking – people who smoke are less able to get rid of the HPV infection from the body, which can develop into cancer.

Remember that condoms are the best form of protection against sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Taking PrEP doesn’t prevent genital HPV infections either.

What do HPV symptoms look like?

Not all cases of HPV will have symptoms. Depending on which strain of HPV you have the symptoms will vary.

Genital HPV symptoms include:

Genital warts (low-risk HPV) – read our genital warts page.

Cancer-causing HPV (high-risk HPV) – in most cases these don't produce any symptoms, so people won’t realize anything is wrong. Symptoms of cervical cancer tend to appear only after the cancer has reached an advanced stage and may include:

  • irregular bleeding, bleeding between periods or bleeding after sexual intercourse
  • back, leg or pelvic pain
  • tiredness, weight loss, loss of appetite
  • vaginal discomfort or smelly discharge
  • a single swollen leg.

How do I test for HPV?

Different strains of HPV are tested for in different ways.

Genital warts (low-risk HPV)

A healthcare professional can quickly examine you to tell if you have genital warts.

Cancer-causing HPV (high-risk HPV)

  • For women – genital HPV testing is often a part of cervical screening, which checks for abnormal cells on the cervix (entrance to the womb). Cervical screening isn't a test for cancer – it's a test to check the health of the cells of the cervix. If you have changes in the cells on your cervix, this doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer, and in most cases won't lead to cervical cancer – the cells may go back to normal on their own. However, in some cases the abnormal cells need to be removed so they can't develop into cancer.
  • For men – there’s currently no reliable test for HPV infection and it's often very difficult to diagnose, as there are no symptoms for high-risk HPV. Some people who are at a high risk of having anal HPV and of developing anal cancer (for example men who have sex with men or people living with HIV) may be offered an anal smear.

If you have genital warts or an abnormal smear result you should be tested for other STIs. Your recent sexual partner/s should also get checked and treated, if you have genital warts. Many people who have genital warts do not notice anything wrong and by telling them you can help to stop the virus being passed on. It can also stop you from getting them again.

How is HPV treated?

Cancer-causing HPV (high-risk HPV): if a cervical screening test shows you have abnormal cells on the cervix, it may be necessary to remove them so that they don’t develop into cancer.

If cervical cancer does develop and is found early, it's usually possible to treat it using surgery. In some cases, it's possible to leave the womb in place, but it may need to be removed. Radiotherapy is another option for some women with early-stage cervical cancer. In some cases, it's used alongside surgery or chemotherapy, or both.

Genital warts (low-risk HPV): there's no cure for genital warts, but it's possible for your body to clear the virus over time. The warts can be removed using creams, freezing or heating. Read our genital warts page for more information.

Complications of HPV

  • As with most STIs, HPV puts you at risk of other STIs, including HIV.
  • A pregnant woman with HPV can pass it on to her unborn baby.
  • As well as cervical cancer, HPV been linked to cancer of the anus, penis, vagina, vulva and back of the throat, although these are very rare.
Last full review: 
22 October 2018
Next full review: 
21 October 2021
Sources: 

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Last full review:
22 October 2018
Next full review:
21 October 2021