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What actually is HPV and how does it give you cancer?

Tuesday 12 December 2017

A young woman stands in the street, a questioning look on her face, hand up in a shrug.
Don't really know what HPV is, or how it's linked to cancer? Read on to find out the facts.

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a common virus that can affect males and females of all ages. Most of us are aware of HPV because of its link to cervical cancer in women, but there’s a lot more to know about HPV.

Read on to find out more about what HPV is, its symptoms and prevention, and the link between HPV and cancer in both men and women.

What is HPV?

HPV is a virus. There are over 100 types of HPV, and about 40 types that affect the genital area.

Non-genital types of HPV can cause warts on the hands and feet, though many types are harmless and don’t cause any symptoms at all.

The 40 types of HPV that affect the genitals are called ‘genital HPV’ and they are really common. In fact, up to 80% of people will be infected with a type of genital HPV at some point in their lives. For most people, their immune system will clear the virus naturally. However, a small number of types of genital HPV are ‘high risk’ viruses that can lead to cancer in men and women.

Genital HPV can also cause genital warts in both men and women. If a person’s immune system can keep the virus under control, however, visible warts may not ever develop. That means it’s possible to be infected with genital HPV without having any symptoms.

How does HPV spread?

HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person, usually during sexual contact. People can be infected with HPV without showing symptoms for many years, and it is not known how long a person with HPV remains infectious to others. This is why HPV is so easily spread amongst sexually active people.

HPV can also be passed from mum to baby during labour and birth.

A man and woman stand looking at each other, smiling slightly.

How to tell if you have HPV

If you develop warts on your genitals you might have been infected with HPV, but these could also point to other things. If you ever notice any unusual or unexpected changes to your genitals, you should always get these checked by your doctor.

Women can have a Cervical Screening Test that can detect the type of HPV infection which can lead to cervical cancer, and should do this every five years, or as directed by their doctor. You can find more information about the National Cervical Cancer Screening Program here, and why the test has changed from a two yearly Pap test to the five yearly Cervical Screening Test here.

There is currently no blood test or swab test that can detect HPV in men.

How is it treated?

There is no treatment available to cure HPV. There are treatments available for genital warts caused by HPV and for cancers caused by HPV.

How to prevent it?

The spread of HPV can be prevented by practising safe sex, and being vaccinated. Using condoms is encouraged as this will reduce the spread of HPV, however will not completely remove the risk.

The HPV vaccine is available for both males and females and can prevent most types of the HPV virus that can cause cancers and disease. The best time to get this vaccine is before a person becomes sexually active. The HPV vaccine is provided free in schools to students aged 12-13 years under the National HPV Vaccination Program. Unvaccinated adults should talk to their GP about whether they should get the vaccine.  

A young girl sits with her sleeve up while a nurse prepares to give her an injection.

How does HPV cause cancer?

HPV is well known for causing the majority of invasive cervical cancers in women, but it’s not just women who can be affected. HPV can cause cancer of the vulva and vagina in women, the penis in men, and the anus, mouth and throat in both genders.

HPV causes cancer after it infects cells in these areas. Over time, the infection can cause pre-cancerous changes in the cells, which can eventually lead them to mutate into cancer cells. This happens over a number of years.

More information

To find out more about HPV you can visit:

The Queensland Government’s information page about HPV

HPV vaccine

HPV.com.au

Cancer Council Australia

Last updated: 3 October 2018