Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

What is human papillomavirus?

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a name for a group of viruses which commonly cause genital warts. There are approximately 100 types of HPV, of which about 40 infect the genital tract.1

Although most infections are asymptomatic and self-limiting, genital infection by HPV is associated with genital warts and anogenital cancers, both in men and in women.

HPV viruses are classified as either ‘high-risk’ or ‘low-risk’ types depending on their association with the development of cancer:

Babies born to mothers who have genital HPV infection affecting the cervix or vagina can be infected during delivery and  can develop growths in the airway and voice box.2

How does HPV spread?

HPV can be spread via:

  • Vaginal, anal, or oral sexual contact
  • Exchange of bodily fluids, such as saliva, or skin-to-skin contact

As symptoms may not necessarily show when infected, many people carry the virus without ever even realising they have it. People with a weakened immune system may not be able to fight the virus and, if it is a high risk strain, they may develop cancer.1

What are the signs and symptoms of HPV?

Most HPV infections are asymptomatic.

Low-risk HPV types are responsible for genital warts, which appear from 3 weeks to 8 months after infection.3 Genital warts are skin-coloured or whitish bumps that appear on the genitals or anus.

What are the complications of HPV?

High-risk HPV types are responsible for cancer including:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Anal cancer
  • Cancer of the penis
  • Vulval cancer
  • Vaginal cancer

Some types of head and neck cancer4

How is HPV treated?

There is currently no treatment for HPV.4

What advice is there to prevent HPV?

For women over 25, attending regular cervical screening (smear test) is the best way to detect abnormal cervical cells which may indicate the presence of high risk HPV.1 More information about cervical screening can be found here.5

Using condoms during sex help minimise some risk of catching HPV, but they do not cover all the skin around the genitals and therefore do not fully prevent spread of the infection.

The HPV vaccine is currently the only reliable way of preventing against certain strains of HPV altogether.4

When to consider vaccination

HPV vaccination is routinely recommended for all girls aged between 11-14.

If the course is interrupted then it should be resumed but not repeated, ideally allowing the appropriate interval between the remaining doses. For girls who miss starting a course of vaccination in the first target year, those less than 15 years of age should still start on a two-dose schedule. Those aged 15 or less than 18 years of age should start a three-dose schedule.


There are two HPV vaccines available in the UK:

  • Bivalent vaccine (protects against two strains of HPV – aimed over time to reduce the number of cases of cervical cancer)
  • Quadrivalent vaccine (protects against four strains of HPV- it also protects against genital warts as well as cervical cancer)1

The above vaccines do not contain thiomersal. They do not contain live organisms and cannot cause the diseases against which they protect against.3


This information is taken from trusted third party websites, NaTHNaC (Travel Health Pro) and EMIS (Patient info) and use of all information has been licenced under the Open Government Licence

Although the materials are being used/replicated under the provisions of the Open Government Licence this in no way represents endorsement of by NaTHNaC, EMIS, Public Health England, the NHS or the Department of Health and Social Care.


  1. What you need to know about HPV
  2. Travel Health Pro: Sexually transmitted infections
  3. Green Book: Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
  4. NHS: Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  5. NHS: Cervical screening