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HPV: an explainer on the virus behind the news headlines

HPV stands for the ‘human papilloma virus’. In fact, it’s not just one virus – it’s many different types within a group that affect the skin and mucous membranes in the body. There are actually over 100 types of HPV.

HPV is a sensitive issue – but it’s something that has the potential to affect the majority of us, so there’s no need to feel embarrassed about it.

The most common areas that HPV affects include the cervix, the penis, the mouth and the throat. In this article, we’re going to look at how common HPV is, how it is transmitted, and the link it has with certain types of cancer. There is no cure for HPV, but there are certain preventative measures and treatment options available.

Warts

HPV causes lots of different type of warts – plantar warts on the feet, common warts often found on the hands or elbows, and flat warts which commonly occur on the arms or face. Skin warts are most common in childhood, but 10% of adults suffer from recurring warts. These warts can be removed with over the counter creams from the pharmacy, or in some cases may need to be treated by your GP in their surgery. Ask your GP if you are concerned.

HPV and being sexually active

Approximately 30 types of HPV affect the genital area specifically. It is the most common type of sexually transmitted infection. In fact, almost everyone who is sexually active will get the HPV virus at some point in their lives.

However, most people with HPV have no symptoms so they don’t realise they have it. Most genital HPV infections are not harmful and go away on their own.

Barrier methods, such as using condoms, will lower your risk of contracting HPV, but do not eliminate it entirely as it is passed through any skin-to-skin contact. If HPV has developed into genital warts, you can have these removed by your GP or visiting a sexual health clinic.

Cervical cancer

Some forms of HPV, called high-risk HPV, lead to types of cancer. Cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer caused by HPV infection, but it can occur any skin or mucous membrane that has been affected by HPV.

Over the age of 25, cervical smear tests are very important for women to catch these potentially harmful high-risk HPV cells. Book in with your GP for your free smear test. Women should have them every 3 to 5 years between the ages of 25-60, depending on their age and level of risk. If you are under the age of 25 and wish to book a smear, discuss this with your doctor.

Smear tests check for changes in cells at the cervix, which is at the neck at the womb. It only takes a few minutes and picks up early cell changes that can then be either monitored or treated. Early detection of these risky cells prevents cervical cancer.

If you’d like to read more on general family health, click here.