What You Need To Know About HPV – And What You're Getting Wrong

Women think HPV is 'dirty' or 'embarrassing', when it's actually extremely common.
Eva-Katalin via Getty Images

Being told you have HPV is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, having cervical screening (previously called a smear test) to detect the human papilloma virus could save your life.

Yet, worrying levels of stigma and misunderstanding around the virus still exist. Despite eight out of 10 people having HPV at some point in their lives, less than a quarter (22%) of women say they would date someone with HPV, according to new research by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

If told they had the virus, one in five would feel “embarrassed” and one in 10 “dirty”. A third of women consider HPV a taboo topic and almost four in ten wouldn’t want anyone to know if they had it.

The myths surrounding HPV are not only perpetuating stigma, but also causing a lot of women to unduly worry – or miss their smears. So here’s what you need to know.

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’s sometimes known as genital human papilloma virus (GHPV). HPV is passed on through intimate skin-to-skin contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex – and both men and women can get it.

Only 15% of those surveyed realised HPV was commonplace, but eight out of 10 people will be infected with HPV during their lifetime. While most instances of HPV are symptomless, some people experience genital warts.

There are hundreds of different types of HPV, and 13 strains of HPV are known to be linked to cancer. There are no reliable tests for HPV in men and it’s currently difficult to diagnose, according to the NHS. But in women, HPV is tested for as part of cervical screening, also known as a smear test.

Which cancers are linked to HPV?

HPV is most commonly associated with cervical cancer, but in rarer instances it can cause mouth and throat cancer, anal cancer, some types of head and neck cancer, and cancer of the penis.

According to Cancer Research UK, virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, but not all women with HPV will get cervical cancer.

Since 2008, girls aged 11-13 have been offered a vaccination in school against the two most common “high-risk” types of HPV, called HPV16 and HPV18, which are thought to cause seven in 10 instances of cervical cancer.

However, attending your smear test every three years is still important if you’ve had the vaccine, because you will not be protected against all strains of HPV and can therefore still develop cervical cancer.

How is HPV treated?

Although there’s no treatment for the HPV virus itself, treatments are available for its effects, such as lotions available for genital warts. Diagnosis is also useful because you can then be monitored more closely for signs of HPV developing into cervical cancer.

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.