Long Reads

What is HPV? A medical expert answers our most Googled questions about the virus

The HPV vaccine could reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer by a third, according to new research. But what is HPV? For HPV Awareness Day, Stylist asks an expert to answer all of our most googled questions about the virus.

Let’s kick off this article with some excellent news: cervical cancer could be completely eliminated in England, according to medical experts. 

Cervical cancer kills around 850 women every single year in the UK, and is the 14th most common cancer for women. Approximately nine women are diagnosed with the disease every day.

But according to experts, the disease could one day be eliminated entirely, thanks to a combination of vaccination (the HPV vaccine is available to girls from the age of 12) and NHS screening

One dose of the HPV vaccine could be enough to reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer by a third, according to new research. And the screening method for cervical cancer (a smear test) was transformed at the end of 2019 to focus on HPV – now, only women who have HPV will have their smear sample checked for abnormal cells, known to be the precursor to cervical cancer.

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“Screening is one of the most effective ways of protecting against cervical cancer and there is no doubt this new way of testing will save lives,” said Professor Peter Johnson, the national clinic director for cancer.

“It is vitally important that all eligible people attend for their screening appointments, to keep themselves safe.

“Combined with the success of the HPV vaccine for both boys and girls, we hope that cervical cancer can be eliminated altogether by the NHS in England. The chances of surviving cancer are at a record high, but there is always more we can do, as we continue to deliver our long-term plan.”

smear test
What is HPV? Smear tests now screen for the virus first.

So what is HPV, and why have smear tests changed to test for it first? Eighty per cent of us are likely to be infected with HPV at some point in our lives, but there is still a huge stigma surrounding the virus, with Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust finding that one in five women would feel embarrassed to be told they had it, while one in 10 would feel dirty. In addition, 37% of women said a HPV diagnosis would affect their confidence, and 35% said it would affect their mental health.

With the Trust also reporting that calls to their helpline about HPV have risen 50% over the past year, it’s high time we cut through the stigma surrounding the virus and examined the facts of HPV instead. Below, Stylist asks Imogen Pinnell, the health information manager at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, to answer all of our most Googled questions around HPV.

What is HPV? (And what does HPV stand for?)

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a really common virus. There are over 200 different types of HPV and most are harmless, although there are some types which can cause cancer to develop. Your immune system usually gets rid of HPV, often without you ever knowing you had it.

How do you get HPV?

HPV is usually passed on through sexual contact, including penetrative sex, oral sex, fingering or sharing sex toys. However, unlike most STIs it can’t be treated and can’t always be prevented. Practising safe sex, such as using condoms, can reduce your risk of getting HPV, but not fully protect against it. 

Is HPV an STD? 

HPV is really common and so shouldn’t have stigma associated with it, so we’re encouraging people not to call it an STI or STD.

How many people have HPV?

Most people! It’s estimated that around 8 in 10 men and women will have HPV at some point in their life. It can be passed on from the very first time you have sexual contact and can live undetected for many years. 

smear test
What is HPV? An example of the cervix brush used during a smear test is shown here.

How do you test for HPV?

The way we test the sample of cells taken during smear tests has changed. Medical experts will now test the sample for HPV first. This is great news, as it means people with a higher risk of cervical cancer can be identified earlier and monitored or treated. It also means that you might see ‘HPV’ on your next smear test results letter. 

How do you treat HPV?

There’s no treatment for HPV and your body will usually clear the virus itself within a couple of years. But treatment can be given for the conditions it causes, such as changes to cells in the cervix. 

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How long can HPV be dormant? How long does HPV last?

HPV usually clears within two years, however it can also can be dormant in the body. This means you have the virus but it is not causing any problems and you won’t know you have it. It can be dormant for many years, even decades. Sometimes, for reasons we don’t know, HPV will become active again and may cause cervical cells to change. This is why smear tests are important even if you have been with the same partner for a long time, or if you are not currently sexually active but have been in the past.

What is the HPV vaccine? Can you get it if you’re over 26?

The HPV vaccine is given to girls and boys in school at the age of 11 to 13, depending on which country you’re in. If you were offered it in school but missed it, you can have it up to the age of 25. You can pay to have the HPV vaccine privately when you’re older, although research shows it is most effective when given at a younger age.

cervical cancer
What is HPV? Most types of HPV do not cause any harm.

Is HPV dangerous?

There are a few types of HPV called high-risk HPV and these are linked to some cancers. However most types do not cause any harm and usually, your immune system gets rid of HPV without it doing any harm, this includes high-risk types. If your immune system doesn’t get rid of high-risk HPV it may cause cells to change and eventually develop into cancer. Smear tests can detect high-risk HPV and find cell changes before they develop into something more serious, which is why it is such an important test.

What does HPV look like on a woman?

HPV itself does not look like anything. It has no symptoms and most types do not cause any harm to the body, visual or otherwise. Some HPV types can cause genital warts, but these are not the same types of HPV which are linked to cervical cancer, so if you’ve had genital warts your risk of cervical cancer does not increase.

Can you get cervical cancer and not HPV?

HPV causes 99.7% of cervical cancers. We don’t know yet what causes the other 0.3%.

For more information about HPV, smear tests and cervical cancer, please visit Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust here or the NHS homepage here

This feature was originally published on 24 January 2019

Images: Getty, Unsplash