Human papillomavirus (HPV)

What is the human papillomavirus (HPV)?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of viruses that can infect the skin and mucous membranes in humans. There are more than 100 different types, most of them harmless, but some types are associated with an increased risk of cancer or cervical dysplasia (abnormal changes in the cells of the surface of the cervix). These are acquired through sexual contact with an infected partner and can be low or high-risk. Low-risk strains can cause genital warts. Conversely, high-risk strains can cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina and anus in women; and cancer of the penis and anus in men.

What are the symptoms of HPV?

In many cases, HPV infections produce little to no symptoms and the infection will go away without treatment. However, whilst that person may not experience symptoms of HPV, they are still carriers of the virus and can transmit it to any sexual partners they have. However, HPV infections can produce genital warts or warts in the throat. High-risk strains of the virus can also cause cell abnormalities in the cervix, which can develop into cervical cancer if untreated. Unfortunately, symptoms of cervical cancer do not usually become apparent until the cancer is in its later stages. This is why regular cervical screening is so important for women after the age of 20-25.

What causes human papillomavirus infections?

There are several factors that increase your risk of suffering from human papillomavirus infections. Most people who become infected with the virus will do so from direct sexual contact, including oral sex. The risk is increased if you are not practising safe sex (i.e. using a condom), because HPV is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. Another risk factor is having a depressed immune system.

Can HPV infections be prevented?

It is possible to get vaccinated against the human papillomavirus to reduce your risk of being infected by the high-risk strains. This vaccine is offered to girls in school from the age of 12 and is highly recommended. Using condoms is also advised to reduce your exposure and risk of contracting HPV during sex. To prevent HPV infections from developing into cervical cancer, women should also have frequent cervical screening from when they become sexually active.

What is the treatment for an HPV infection?

There is no cure for the human papillomavirus. Treatment of cervical abnormalities that result from HPV can be removed surgically. Genital warts that result from HPV may be treated with topical creams, surgery or cryotherapy.