HPV: what is the human papilloma virus?

Written by: Mr Rahul Nath
Published: | Updated: 30/04/2019
Edited by: Top Doctors®

The human papilloma virus, or HPV, is a family of common viruses that in addition to causing warts on the feet, hands, and genitals, can cause pre-cancerous and cancerous changes of the cervix, vagina, vulval and anal skin. Many don’t display symptoms if they have it, and the body can even rid itself of certain types of HPV, but it is important to be aware of the causes and risks. Mr Rahul Nath, a leading London gynaecologist, tells us more.

How is HPV caused?

HPV lives in cells found on the skin’s surface, called epithelial cells. There are many types of HPV which can be classified into types that affect humans, or animals. The types that can affect humans are divided into low risk types that are associated with skin wart formation, and higher risk subtypes that can lead to pre-cancerous or cancerous change. In women HPV infection most commonly causes wart formation on the vulva or precancerous changes of the cervix, but less commonly warts can be found on the vagina, cervix or anus and pre-cancerous changes can be found on the vulva, vagina, or rarely the anus. In men the commonest presentation of HPV infection is with warts on the head of the penis.  

HPV infections of the genitals are extremely common and are transmitted through skin contact. Infections of the genital area are extremely contagious, which is why genital warts are the most common sexually transmitted viral infection in the UK. 

What are the symptoms of HPV?

An HPV infection may not display any symptoms at all, and many people do not know that they carry the virus. However, the most common sign of and HPV infection is warts, in many different shapes and sizes. They could be flat, or raised, a singular wart, or a collection of warts together. They can be large or small, and grow in various places on the body, as mentioned above. Women may be identified as having HPV infection when they have a cervical smear performed.

Can HPV lead to cancer?

There are some types of HPV that are linked to cancer. These high-risk types last longer, and can cause abnormal tissue growth or changes in cells that may lead to them becoming cancerous. Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV.

How can this be prevented?

Teenage girls (age 12-13) are now being offered a vaccination against HPV, which helps protect against cervical cancer as a result of HPV. Women are offered cervical screening to check for abnormal tissue or cells in the cervix.

In men, HPV infection is usually transient and is cleared naturally by the immune system. Men who have an impairment of their immune system - such as those who have HIV infection, or have had an organ transplant are at risk of persistent HPV infection that can lead to HPV related cancer formation. It is very difficult to diagnose high-risk HPV, as it does not carry any symptoms.

The use of condoms cannot eliminate the risk of contracting an HPV infection, but it decreases the chance of passing it on during vaginal, anal, and oral sex. 

Discover why the HPV vaccine will be offered to boys

Is there a cure for HPV?

There is currently no cure for the infection, but warts, growths, and cell changes (e.g pre- cancerous changes) can be treated. Your doctor may choose to treat the warts using various methods such as topical application of a cream, cryotherapy (freezing the cells with liquid nitrogen), or burning the area with an electrical current. Pre-cancerous changes of the cervix can be treated easily and simply, often as an outpatient.

Remember to get regular check-ups, especially if you are sexually active, and visit your doctor if you are worried and would like a test for HPV. 

By Mr Rahul Nath
Obstetrics & gynaecology

Mr Rahul Nath is one of London's leading experts in gynaecology. Practising at a number of prestigious medical establishments including the Portland Hospital, the Lister and London Bridge Hospital, he specialises in colposcopycancer screening and gynaecological cancer surgery - both open and minimal access surgery. 

He has won numerous reputable awards and is currently the Joint Clinical Academic Group Lead at King’s Health Partners and Clinical Director for women's services at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Trust.

Mr Nath is dedicated to research and has been widely published in peer-reviewed journals on a range of field-related topics. 

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