What Is HPV? Causes, Symptoms And Cervical Cancer Risk Explained

Eight out of 10 people will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives.

In Lena Dunham's TV series 'Girls', human papilloma virus - or HPV as it's more commonly known - is referred to as the STI that "all adventurous women" have.

But in reality, HPV is a serious infection that can increase your risk of developing cervical cancer.

According to Cancer Research UK, there are hundreds of different types of HPV and up to eight out of 10 people will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives.

About 3,100 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year and nearly all are related to HPV.

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What Is HPV?

HPV is a virus that can affect any part of the human body. It primarily affects the genital organs, which is why it is sometimes known as genital human papilloma virus (GHPV).

According to Harley Street Gynaecologist Dr Ahmed Ismail, the virus can manifest itself in two forms: benign (low risk) and aggressive (high risk).

"If it is benign (low risk), the symptoms will manifest themselves in the form of genital warts and other STIs, which can be easily treated," he says.

"However, if the strain of virus is more aggressive (high risk), it can cause changes in the cells of the cervix, leading to cervical cancer."

In some cases, HPV can be symptomless, which is why it's so important for women over 25 to have regular smear tests so the virus can be detected.

How Do You Get HPV?

Dr Ismail says the virus is only transmitted through sexual relationships.

"However, what many people do not realise is that this refers to both penetrative, naked foreplay and oral sexual relationships," he adds.

Are Men Affected By HPV?

Both men and women can carry the HPV virus and according to Cancer Research UK, men who have sex with men may be at an increased risk of anal cancer if they have the infection.

"Sporadic studies suggest that there may be some risk of men contracting penis cancer as a result of coming into contact with HPV," Dr Ismail adds.

"To date, that has not been seen by the majority of practitioners in the field.

"However, it has been proven in various studies that over 25% of men who participate in oral sex with females who are positive with HPV will develop throat cancer."

What Can A Person Do To Reduce Their Risk?

Since 2008, school girls have been offered a free vaccination against the two most common ‘high risk’ types of HPV, as well as two 'low risk' types.

"This has a 70-80% success rate," Dr Ismail says.

"If the woman did not receive the vaccine aged 9-13 and has not engaged in any sexual activity, she can still benefit from having the vaccine. If she has had sex, we can perform tests to determine if she has HPV."

Current scientific knowledge suggests that the vaccine provides permanent protection against HPV.

However, Dr Ismail says we will only be able to confirm this for definite in 20 years time.

"As the highest incidence of cervical cancer occurs after the age of 40, the most effective way is for medical researchers to check the statistics over the next 50 years so that, by then, today’s 9-13 year olds will be aged 60 and above," he explains.

"Therefore, we will then have a good level of data for accurate analysis."

Is There Any Treatment For HPV?

Although there’s no treatment for the HPV virus itself, treatments are available for its effects, such as lotions available for genital warts.

If HPV has developed into cervical cancer, treatment options may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or surgery to remove part or all of the womb in more advanced stages.

However, the NHS advises that most HPV infections don't cause any serious harm and are cleared by your immune system within two years.

Should You Tell Future Sexual Partners If You've Been Diagnosed With HPV?

Dr Ismail says morally, you should always be honest with your partner(s), especially relating to medical matters that could also impact their health.

"Your genital and reproductive areas are very sensitive and important," he adds.

"Therefore, when it comes to seeking the appropriate medical care, if you think that there is something wrong, always book an appointment with your gynaecologist straight away, don’t be embarrassed and always tell your gynaecologist your true medical and sexual history."

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