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Human papillomavirus and HPV vaccine

11-minute read

Key facts

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus that is spread through sexual contact.
  • Most people have HPV at some time in their lives.
  • The virus can live in the skin for many years without causing symptoms.
  • In some cases, HPV can cause genital warts or cancer.
  • The best way to protect yourself and others against HPV is to be vaccinated.

What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus that is spread through skin-to-skin contact. There are many different types of HPV that can affect different parts of your body. In most people, HPV doesn't cause any symptoms, and the virus may goes away by itself, but in some people, HPV causes genital warts or cancer.

HPV can affect anyone who is sexually active, even if they only experience sexual contact once. Most people have HPV at some time in their lives.

Some types of HPV are considered 'low risk' and may cause genital warts.

Other types of HPV are considered 'high risk'. If these are untreated, they may lead to some types of cancer, including:

What are the symptoms of HPV?

Most people infected with HPV will not have any symptoms. Some types can cause warts on any part of your body, including your genital area. The warts will usually be painless and may be:

  • itchy or uncomfortable
  • flat or raised
  • single, multiple or clustered

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

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

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

How does HPV spread?

HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. It most commonly spreads during sexual activity.

The virus can live in your skin for many years, but it's not known for how long you can spread it after first catching it.

You can spread the virus even if you do not have any symptoms.

It's very unlikely that you will transmitting HPV to your baby during labour and birth.

How is HPV diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose HPV by:

  • asking you about your symptoms and examining you
  • performing a cervical screening test, if you have a cervix

Cervical screening test

Cervical screening tests can detect high-risk strains of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer.

You are recommended to do a cervical screening test every 5 years if you:

  • have a cervix
  • are 25 – 74 years old
  • have ever had sexual contact (even if you are not currently sexually active)

Cervical screening tests have replaced Pap tests.

During a cervical screening test, a sample from your cervix is collected with a swab. You may be able to self-collect your own sample, or you can ask your healthcare provider to take a sample for you.

There are currently no HPV screening tests available for males.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is HPV treated?

There is no treatment or cure for HPV. In most people, the body gets rid of the virus by itself within 1 – 2 years.

If you develop genital warts, your doctor may 'freeze' them off (cryotherapy). They may also 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?

You can reduce your chance of catching HPV by:

  • getting the HPV vaccine
  • practicing safe sex
  • doing regular cervical screening tests

Note that condoms do not fully protect against HPV, because they do not prevent all skin-to-skin genital contact.

HPV vaccine

The best way to protect yourself and others against HPV is to be vaccinated. The HPV vaccine protects you against 9 of the most common types of HPV that cause genital warts and cervical, penile and throat cancers.

The HPV vaccine is recommended for:

  • younger people aged 9 – 25 years old
  • people who have weakened immune systems
  • males who have sex with males

The best time to be immunised is before you are sexually active. Teenagers aged 12 – 13 years receive the HPV vaccine for free at school on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. It is also available for free to anyone under 26 years if they were not vaccinated at school.

You can still be vaccinated if you have been infected with a type of HPV in the past.

The HPV vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV. For this reason, even if you have been vaccinated, you should still have regular cervical screening tests.

Who should not get the HPV vaccine?

You should not get the HPV vaccine if you:

  • have a yeast allergy
  • are pregnant (though research shows that there will be no significant effect on you or your baby if you have the vaccine and then find out you are pregnant)
  • have a bleeding disorder
  • had an anaphylaxis response to a previous dose of the vaccine, or to any of the ingredients in the vaccine

If you are not sure if you should be vaccinated against HPV, discuss your concerns with your doctor.

This table explains how the vaccine is given, who should get it, and whether it is on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Some diseases can be prevented with different vaccines. Talk to your doctor about which one is appropriate for you.

What age is it recommended?

9 to 25 years.

How many doses are required?

1 – 3 doses, depending on your age and circumstances.

How is it administered?


Is it free?

Free for children aged approximately 12 to 13 years (at school).

A free catch-up program is available for under-26-year-olds if they missed the vaccine program at school.

For everyone else, there is a cost for this vaccine.

Find out more on the Department of Health website and the National Immunisation Program Schedule, and ask your doctor if you are eligible for additional free vaccines based on your situation or location.

Common side effects

The vaccine is very safe. Common side effects last no more than a couple of days. They can include pain, redness and swelling where the needle went in, headache, tiredness, body aches and fever.

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Last reviewed: March 2024

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