Understanding HPV

What is HPV?

The human papilloma virus (HPV) is the name given to a family of viruses. HPV is very common and is easily spread by sexual activity. As much as half the population will be infected at some time in their life. In most cases, the virus doesn't do any harm because your immune system gets rid of the infection. But in some cases, the infection persists and can lead to health problems.

Most HPV infections, like any other viral infection, are cleared by your immune system in a relatively short time. In some women, the virus is not cleared.  If HPV persists, it can cause cells in the cervix to become abnormal and, over time, the abnormal change may progress to pre-cancer and rarely to cancer. Cervical cancer is preventable because screening identifies women who need careful follow up or treatment.

"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any."

Alice Walker

There are different types of HPV?

  • Different types of HPV are classed as either high risk or low risk, depending on the conditions they can cause. For instance, some types of HPV can cause warts or verrucas. Other types are associated with cervical cancer.

  • In 99% of cases, cervical cancer occurs as a result of a history of infection with high-risk types of HPV.  Often, infection with HPV causes no symptoms.

  • There are over 100 different types of HPV, with around 40 types that affect the genital area.  Infection with some high-risk types of HPV can cause abnormal tissue growth as well as other cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer.

How do you get HPV?

  • HPV is transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact. You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the virus. Many HPV infections cause no symptoms.

  • You can develop symptoms or test positive for HPV many years after you have sex with someone who is infected. This makes it hard to know when you first became infected or from whom.

Why test for HPV?

  • Persistent HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer and HPV testing increases the accuracy of results significantly over the cervical screening test alone.  

    • After successful trials, HPV testing has been incorporated into the NHS Cervical Screening Programme.

  • The cervical screening test involves using a soft brush to take a small sample of cells from the surface of your cervix.                                       

  • The sample is put into a small plastic container and sent to a laboratory. It is tested for the types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer. 

  • If you have a negative result for the most common types of HPV that cause cervical cancer, your risk of cervical cancer is very low and there is no need to check for abnormal cells even if you have had these in the past. 

  • If you have a positive result for HPV your sample will be checked for abnormal cells. Abnormal cells are not cancer, but they could develop into cancer if left untreated.

How accurate is
the HPV test?

  • The HPV test is very sensitive for detecting the presence of HPV. 

  • A positive high-risk HPV test does not necessarily mean you have abnormal cells, but women with HPV should be monitored closely as long as the virus persists.

  • Performing the HPV test as the first test on the sample, will increase the accuracy of identifying women who may have precancerous cells, and may find abnormal cells that the cervical screening test alone may have missed. 

So, what's the next step if I have HPV?

Follow the guidance provided in your results letter.  


If HPV is found in your cervical screening sample, you may be referred for a colposcopy examination for further investigation and, if necessary, treatment.

What do the HPV test results mean?

  • HPV testing detects the 14 most important high risk strain​s that cause the majority of cervical cancers.

  • Low risk HPV types are not tested for, as they are not involved in cervical cancer prevention, although low risk types 6 and 11 cause 90% of genital warts.

How can I prevent HPV and cervical cancer?

  • A vaccine called Gardasil® is used in the national NHS cervical cancer vaccination programme. Gardasil® protects against the two types of HPV (types 16 and 18) that are responsible for more than 70% of cervical cancers in the UK.

  • A bonus of using Gardasil® to prevent cervical cancer is that it prevents genital warts too.

  • All girls aged 12 to 13 are offered HPV vaccination as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme. The vaccine protects against cervical cancer. It's usually given to girls in year eight at schools in England.

  • The HPV vaccine is delivered largely through secondary schools, and consists of two injections into the upper arm spaced at least six, and not more than 24 months apart (girls who began vaccination before September 2014 receive three injections).