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Human papillomavirus (HPV)

4-minute read

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus that is spread through sexual contact. HPV causes most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts, but you can be vaccinated against it.

What is HPV?

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that can affect any male or female who is sexually active, even if they only experience sexual contact once. Nine out of 10 people have HPV at some time in their lives.

Most people don't experience any symptoms of HPV and the virus often goes away by itself. But in some people, HPV causes genital warts or cancer.

There are many different types of HPV virus; some are considered 'low risk' while others are 'high risk'. Low-risk HPV types can cause genital warts and don't cause cancer.

High-risk types of HPV can cause cervical cancer or other cancers, including:

  • anal cancer
  • vaginal cancer
  • cancer of the vulva
  • cancer of the penis
  • oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils)

How is HPV diagnosed?

The Cervical Screening Test, which replaced the Pap smear, can detect high-risk HPV.

If HPV leads to genital warts, you might notice small growths on or around your genitals and anus.

If you are infected with a type of HPV that causes cancer, the virus can cause changes to the cervical cells, which can eventually lead to cancer. There are usually no symptoms, but some people may notice:

If you notice any of these symptoms, see your doctor.

How is HPV treated?

There is no treatment for HPV. The body usually gets rid of the virus by itself over time, which can take about a year. You will probably need to be re-tested to see if the virus has gone.

If you develop genital warts, your doctor may 'freeze' them off (cryotherapy) or suggest an ointment or cream. Sometimes genital warts need to be removed in hospital.

Cervical and other cancers need to be treated by specialists. Your doctor will advise you on the treatments you need.

Can HPV be prevented?

Exposure to HPV can occur through genital-to-skin contact. Using condoms offers some protection, but you can still catch HPV since condoms don't cover the whole genital area.

The best way to protect yourself and others against HPV is to be vaccinated. The HPV vaccine is very effective at protecting against the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer in women, cancers caused by HPV in men and genital warts.

The HPV vaccine is recommended for:

  • adolescents aged 9-18 years
  • people with immunocompromising conditions
  • men who have sex with men

The best time to be immunised is before you are sexually active. Boys and girls aged 12-13 receive the free HPV vaccine at school on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. It's also available for free to anyone under 20 if they weren't vaccinated at school.

You can still be vaccinated if you have been infected with a type of HPV in the past. Vaccination won't protect you against HPV-related cancers and disease caused by that HPV type, but you will be protected against the other types the vaccine targets.

Women who have received the HPV vaccine should still have regular cervical screening tests, since the vaccine doesn't cover all types of HPV. Women aged 25-70 need to be screened every 5 years, or 2 years after their last Pap smear.

Who shouldn't get the HPV vaccine?

The vaccine isn't suitable for people with certain bleeding disorders or a yeast allergy, or for pregnant women (although research shows there will be no significant effect on you or your baby if you have the vaccine and later find out you are pregnant). Ask your doctor if you're not sure whether you should be vaccinated against HPV.

For more information

You can find out more about HPV, immunisation and cervical screening on these websites:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2020

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