The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the leading cause of cervical cancer in women, and is also suspected in anal, reproductive, and genital cancers. HPV has multiple strains of the same virus, and some strains cause genital warts – but not all.
The HPV infection is cleared by your immune system usually in one or two years. Your antibodies don’t stick around, and because of the many strains, you are able to catch HPV again or catch another strain. This is where vaccination can become useful, even if you have already had an HPV infection. You can protect against more strains, for life.
Vaccines are available for men and women alike for multi strains of HPV. Read more about HPV vaccines here.
Warts (and skin changes) caused by HPV can occur on the genitals, but also on the cervix, vagina, anus, rectum and throat. These changes increase the risk of certain types of cancers. Some types of HPV can cause genital warts and cancer. To read more about HPV-related genital warts, visit our genital warts page.
Over 80 per cent of women will have been infected with at least one strain of HPV before they turn 50 – no symptoms doesn’t mean not infected, and infected doesn’t mean cancer.
The way we talk about HPV
HPV is something that nobody likes to talk about – women are reluctant to say they have HPV because it means they have ‘a variant of the wart virus’, and a sexually transmitted virus. This is despite the fact that in many countries, regular Pap smear testing is performed as a routine check. This check is for the changes caused by HPV specifically. The way we talk about it has problems; we can feel dirty if we talk about this diagnosis in real terms, so we hide behind the more dramatic cervical cancer testing, without mentioning the virus. This means women and men are both left ignorant of their own bodies and sexual health. The lack of talking extends to men, who spread HPV between sexual partners without any knowledge.
How is HPV spread?
HPV is spread by skin contact and sex, which is why 80 per cent of sexually active people will have HPV at some stage in their lives. We have no information on how long after contracting HPV that it can be spread, so take this into account when informing your future sex partners. If you know you have HPV, you have a moral obligation to protect your sexual partners by informing them so they can make an informed choice regarding unprotected sex.
Warts (and skin changes) can occur on the genitals, but also on the cervix, vagina, anus, rectum and throat. These changes increase the risk of certain types of cancers. Some types of HPV can cause genital warts and cancer. To read more about HPV-related genital warts, visit our genital warts page.
HPV – the cancer-causing strains
HPV of the no-physical-warts varieties (generally types 16 and 18) cause cancer, and it doesn’t matter how old you are. Early 20’s are not a fine time to die of cervical cancer, so the minute you are sexually active (even just touching genitals – it’s passed by skin-to-skin contact, not body fluids), you need to be getting regular (1-2 yearly) pap smears. No exceptions.
Eight out of ten people have HPV and it can be spread with a dirty finger, the brush of a thigh or other barely-there touching. Use condoms. There are over 100 strains of wart virus, with only some affecting the genitals and fewer again causing actual warts to appear.
Treating abnormal cells of the cervix
Treating the HPV that affects your cervix may need more invasive work if the cell changes are advanced and do not resolve by itself. The strain that causes physical warts does not cause cervical changes.
Preventing HPV spread
Vaccines against certain strains of HPV, particularly a couple that cause cancer, are available and are proving their worth with data showing significant reductions in abnormal cervical cells and cancer in certain vaccinated groups. Both boys and girls can get the vaccine. Condoms are not that effective against the spread of HPV because they do not cover all the skin, but they definitely help.
Pap tests help prevent cervical cancer
Getting regular pap smears means you can catch any cell changes early, and take action before you get cancer. There are certain changes that occur leading up to actual cancer, and these can be treated usually using surgical techniques to actually remove the cells. This leaves the cervix intact, and all reproductive facilities available.
Pregnant women and those with HIV/immunocompromisation may see rapid growth of warts.
Diagnosis of abnormal cells and genital warts
Your doctor will examine you, and if the warts are internal, a colposcopy may be recommended. Genital warts are pretty classic in their appearance and are easy to diagnose.
Any wart that bleeds, looks unusual, develops into a sore or ulcer, or remains after treatment will need to be removed surgically and checked for cancer. Syphilis can also cause genital warts, so a blood test will often be taken for syphilis.
A pap smear will be done if the warts on on the cervix to check for cervical cell abnormalities. If anything is found, checks should be performed every six months to catch any changes early.