Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV stands for ‘Human Papillomavirus’

What is HPV?

HPV stands for ‘Human Papillomavirus’.  There are many types of this virus. HPV is incredibly common, and most people will come into contact with it at some point in their lives. Most types of HPV will not cause any harm and are cleared by the immune system, but some types are called ‘high risk’ meaning they may cause harm if they persist.

  • Types 6 and 11 cause 90% of genital warts, these are low risk meaning they are not life threatening
  • Types 16 and 18 are high risk, meaning they may cause harm if the infection lasts for long periods of time

Other types (e.g. type 2) can cause warts on other parts of the body, such as the hands.

How is HPV transmitted?

The virus only is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. This means it will never be passed on from surfaces or items such as bed sheets and towels.

Genital Warts

How are Genital Warts diagnosed?

Genital Warts caused by HPV are very common, do not cause harm, and are usually cleared by the body naturally within 1-2 years. We therefore do not test for the types of HPV virus that cause genital warts. If you find a lump on your genitals a doctor or nurse can inspect and make a diagnosis of genital warts by looking at it.

How are Genital Warts treated?

There are a range of treatment options to remove genital warts. There isn’t one clear ‘best’ treatment, as different people find that different treatments work more effectively for them. Your doctor or nurse may suggest a treatment based on the number or position of warts.

The treatments focus on eradicating the growth on the skin whilst encouraging the immune system to clear the virus. Some people decide they do not want any treatment since the warts are not harmful and 3 in 10 people will find they disappear within 6 months.

The three main therapies used in sexual health clinics are:

  • Topical cryotherapy – Liquid nitrogen is sprayed onto the surface of the wart to freeze it. People may find their wart disappears after one session, or they might need up to 4-6 weekly sessions.
  • Imiquimod – an immune moderator cream self-applied every other day for up to 16 weeks.
  • Podophyllotoxin – a cream or liquid self-applied to the warts for 3 days of the week until warts resolve.

All wart treatments can take weeks to have an effect. They may result in local irritation, so salt-water bathing alongside treatment is often advised. Imiquimod and podophyllotoxin are contraindicated in pregnancy, so patients using these methods must be using an effective method of contraception if they are at risk of pregnancy. Surgical excision or ablation are possible treatments but less commonly used due to the cost of treatment and likelihood of scarring.

If you want more information about your diagnosis or your treatment options, please book an appointment to discuss this with a health care professional.

Screening for high risk types of HPV

Cervical screening looks for HPV type 16 and 18 on the cervix. Over 99% of cervical cancer is caused by HPV infection. It’s important to remember that infection with HPV is common and most people clear the virus without any help within about 18 months, however it can lead to cervical or anal cancer if the body does not clear the virus. It takes between 5 to 10 years for cancer to develop.

HPV 16 and 18 can sometimes be found in the anus. There is no current UK screening programme for HPV in the anus. If someone has bleeding or new lumps in their bottom they should see their doctor. Usually, the causes of these symptoms are minor such as haemorrhoids or anal fissures, however a doctor may need to take a sample (biopsy) of any area that looks abnormal to send to the lab where they will look at it under a microscope.

HPV vaccination

Who is eligible for HPV vaccination?

Sexual health clinics are commissioned to provide HPV vaccines for gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men up to the age of 45. Some transgender people, sex workers, and men and women living with HIV may also be offered the vaccine if they are at higher risk of contracting HPV.

When you come to the clinic you may be offered the HPV vaccine alongside other vaccines to protect you from sexually transmitted infections. It is important that you attend for all doses of the vaccine as advised to ensure you gain the maximum protection.

There is also a national vaccination programme in the UK which offers all children in year 8 in England and Wales, S1 in Scotland, and school year 9 in Northern Ireland the vaccine. If they do not receive one during the national vaccination programme but would like one later, they should be offered this up to the age of 25. They would need to check with their GP where they can get this in their local area.

How does the vaccine work?

HPV vaccines are made up of particles that are structured like the virus.  They do not contain the virus and cannot cause HPV infection. In the UK we use the Gardisil-9 HPV vaccine. This contains particles that are structured like 9 types of HPV virus (6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58). The immune system thinks these particles are HPV and forms antibodies which prevents future infection.

How many doses of the HPV vaccine will I need?

People under 25 only need one dose of the HPV vaccine.

People aged 25 and over should have two doses of the HPV vaccine, with the second dose six to 24 months after the first (0, 6-24 months).

People living with HIV or who have diseases that cause their immune system to be suppressed should have three doses of the HPV vaccine. The second dose should be at least one month after the first dose and their third dose at least three months after their second dose (0, 1, 4-6 months).

If someone has only had part of the vaccine schedule they should be offered the doses to complete it, but not repeat any they have already had.

Are there any side effects from having an HPV vaccination?

The HPV vaccine has been tested extensively and is very safe. The most common side effect is minor pain at the site of injection, which is usually the upper part of the arm. Some people report a headache, muscle pains, a mild fever or tiredness afterwards but this is rare.

How do I book a vaccination appointment?

You can call us on 01273 523 388 to book an appointment.

You can also book a ‘Treatment Clinic’ appointment online (Log-in>Appointments>Sexual Health>Treatment Clinic) at SHAC East and leave details that it is for HPV vaccination.

We also have a limited number of on-the-day appointments at SHAC Central. This means we will try and make sure you are seen the same day however there may be occasions, especially later in the working day, where this is not possible. On the day appointments are offered on a first come, first served basis. You may be given a time slot and asked to return to the clinic at that time. We are closed between 1pm and 2pm.

Other frequently asked questions about HPV

Do genital warts become cancerous?

Genital warts do not develop into cancers. They are caused by separate strains of the HPV virus. People with genital warts do not need more frequent cervical screening.

I am pregnant – will HPV affect my baby?

Genital warts commonly worsen during pregnancy, and resolve spontaneously after giving birth. It is rare for genital warts to prevent a planned vaginal delivery unless they are so extensive as to present an obstruction. Genital warts do not usually pass on to the baby even with a vaginal delivery.

If I have had HPV once, can I catch it again?

Different people have a different immune response to HPV infection meaning reinfection with HPV is possible. This may be with the same strain or a different strain.

Can you pay for the vaccine?

Yes – most pharmacies offer vaccination privately.

Can you be tested for HPV?

HPV testing is only available at a smear test (cervical screening).