What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. This very common type of sexually transmitted infection is an important one to learn about for several reasons. Read on to find out more about what causes HPV, just how common HPV is, how to prevent HPV, and more…

HPV Virus illustration

How common is HPV?

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US with approximately 79 million infected and 14 million people becoming infected each year. In the UK it’s estimated that eight out of ten people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives.

How can you get HPV?

You can get HPV from sexual contact with someone who has the virus. HPV is most commonly spread by vaginal or anal sex, but it can also be spread by oral sex, and more rarely it can even be passed on simply from skin-to-skin contact. Keep in mind, that even if you aren’t sexually active at the moment, you can still be at risk of HPV.

Types of HPV

There are two types of HPV: high risk and low risk. 

High-risk HPV usually doesn’t present with any symptoms until it’s already caused serious harm to your health. This is the type of HPV that can cause various types of cancer including throat, anal, penile, and vulvar cancer.

Some forms of HPV can also cause genital warts. These appear as soft, fleshy bumps on the skin around the penis or vulva. These growths are typically harmless, painless, and can be easily treated or removed, just like warts on other areas of the body. The types of HPV that lead to genital warts are known as low-risk HPV.

HPV symptoms

When it comes to high-risk HPV, many people show no symptoms, or symptoms may take several years to develop. This makes it very hard to tell when you first became infected. It’s always a good idea to get regularly tested as if you wait for symptoms to develop you may already be experiencing health problems caused by the virus. 

How to treat HPV

There is no direct treatment for HPV. In fact, most infections don’t cause problems and will clear up on their own within a couple of years. However, you may need treatment for symptoms of HPV such as genital warts, or if HPV causes changes to cells in the cervix that can lead to more serious health problems. 

How to prevent HPV

The best way to protect yourself from getting the virus is to get the HPV vaccine. This is usually offered when you’re around twelve years old and can be given up until your mid-twenties. In some cases, you may be able to get the vaccine even later depending on the advice of your healthcare professional. The older you are, the less beneficial the vaccine becomes as people in an older age bracket are more likely to have been exposed to HPV already. 

How to check for HPV

The good news is it’s easy to test for HPV, and this is another great way to protect yourself from the health risks caused by high-risk HPV. Being tested for HPV involves a quick swab test that’s usually carried out by a nurse or doctor. This test is known as a pap smear or smear test, as a small cell sample is taken from the cervix. 

The test is painless and usually only takes a couple of minutes. While it may seem daunting to go for a smear, the reality is that checking the health of your cervix is one of the best ways you can protect yourself from cervical cancer- in fact, it’s estimated that 83% of cervical cancer cases could be prevented with a simple smear test. Home testing for HPV has also recently become available if you prefer to collect the sample yourself.

Depending on your age and location, smear tests are usually recommended every two to three years. If you think you might be due a pap smear, talk to your healthcare professional about the options available to you. Keep in mind that you should still regularly check for HPV even if you’re vaccinated.

Male HPV

In this post we’ve mainly talked about female HPV, and the ways it can be prevented and detected. While men can also contract and carry the virus, there is currently no routine screening process for HPV in males. In some locations there are vaccination programmes available. Check with your healthcare professional should you have any queries about HPV vaccination for yourself or your partner.

Get reproductive reminders

Here at Natural Cycles we’re passionate about closing the knowledge gap when it comes to female health. Our blog is just one place where we aim to create better awareness in this historically underserved area. 

Users of the Natural Cycles app, as well as having access to hormone-free birth control, also get useful insights into their own reproductive health. This includes in-app reminders on when to do a self-breast check and our brand new pap smear reminder. Looking to go hormone-free? Why not find out if Natural Cycles could work for you?

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Written By

Jennifer Gray

A writer with a passion for women’s health, Jennifer Gray has years of experience writing about various reproductive health topics including birth control, planning pregnancy, women’s anatomy, and so much more.

Jack in a suit and tie holding a microphone and giving a presentation.

Scientifically Reviewed

Jack Pearson

With 10 years of experience working in the field of fertility, Jack Pearson is Natural Cycles’ in-house expert. As Medical Affairs Manager, he dedicates his time to conducting groundbreaking research and educating healthcare professionals.

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