Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a common virus that affects both males and females in Australia. Up to 80% of people will be infected with at least one genital type of HPV at some time in their lives.
Today, there are more than 100 varieties of HPV in existence, and each of the different varieties infect different parts of the body. In most people, HPV is harmless and has no symptoms, but in others, the virus may persist and lead to diseases of the genital area, including genital warts and cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva and anus.
Vaccines can help protect against the strains of genital HPV that are most likely to cause genital warts or cervical cancer.
Key disease information
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a common virus that is spread by skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. HPV is primarily spread through sexual contact, and as such, it has been estimated that up to 80% of males and females who have had any kind of sexual activity involving genital contact, will be infected with at least one type of genital HPV at some point in their life.
There are more than 100 types of the HPV, some of which cause common warts on the hands and feet. About 40 types of HPV are known as genital HPV, as they affect the genital area.
Most types of HPV are harmless, don’t cause any symptoms and will go away on their own without treatment. However, certain ‘high-risk’ genital HPV types can sometimes lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat.
Genital HPV types may be ‘high-risk‘ types (such as HPV types 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 45, 52 and 58) or ’low-risk‘ types (such as HPV types 6 and 11). ’High-risk’ HPV types can cause cervical cancer and some vaginal, vulvar and anal cancers. ’Low-risk‘ HPV types can cause genital warts. Both the “high-risk” and “low-risk” types of HPV can cause abnormal changes.
The HPV virus is spread through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person, most commonly through sexual contact. It can be through vaginal, anal or oral sex. The virus can be passed on even if there are no visible warts.
The virus can live in the skin for many years and during that time, can be passed on through sexual contact. Even if the warts are gone, HPV can still be living in the genital skin and it is still possible to pass the virus on to your partner. It is unknown how long a person with HPV infection remains infectious, or can pass the infection on to a sexual partner.
HPV may also be passed from mother to baby during labour and birth, which can then go on to cause laryngeal infection (throat area) in infants.
HPV infection is usually diagnosed by the presence of genital warts. However, most people with HPV infection are asymptomatic (no symptoms present).
Some types of HPV that cause cancer can cause changes to the cells. This can sometimes cause symptoms like:
- Bleeding after sex
- Pain during sex
- Abnormal periods, vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Pelvic pain
There is no treatment for the HPV virus. However, in most people the virus is cleared naturally in a couple of years.
There are treatments available for the genital warts and cancers caused by the infection. Genital warts can be treated by your doctor, sometimes with prescription medication. If left untreated, genital warts may go away on their own, stay the same, or grow in size or number.
Cervical pre-cancer (not yet cancerous) can be treated. Women who get routine cervical screening tests and follow up as needed may be able to identify problems before cancer develops. For sexually active women, regular cervical screening remains an important preventative measure against cervical cancer. Other HPV-related cancers are also more treatable when diagnosed and treated early.
HPV is highly contagious, being easily spread during vaginal or anal sex. It can also be spread through oral sex and other close skin-to-skin contact during sexual intercourse.
If used correctly, condoms can help reduce the risk of genital HPV and can also provide protection against other sexually transmitted diseases. However, because HPV is spread through genital skin contact (not just sexual intercourse) and via oral sex; condoms don’t provide 100% protection against HPV.
HPV is very common in both men and women, with initial infection occurring closely after a sexual encounter. Although it is common among young Australians, it is important to note that it is not only a young person’s disease.
It is thought that up to 80% of males and females who have had any kind of sexual activity involving genital contact will be infected with at least one of the types of genital HPV at some time in their life.
Those at increased risk include:
- men who have sex with men
- adults with a weakened immune system.
It can take many years for the HPV virus to become active, and when it does, it usually only lasts a short time. In most cases, the infection is cleared by the body in around 1-2 years.
Certain types of HPV have the potential to cause cancer if not treated, which can take 10–15 years after infection. Most women clear the HPV infection without any treatment, and before any cancer develops.
There is no treatment for the HPV virus. However, in most people the virus is cleared naturally within a couple of years. There are treatments available for the genital warts and cancers caused by the infection. Treating visible warts as soon as they appear reduces the spread of the virus.
Genital warts can be treated by your healthcare professional or with prescription medication. If left untreated, genital warts may go away, stay the same, or grow in size or number.
Cervical pre-cancer (not yet cancerous) can be treated. Women who get routine cervical screening tests and follow up as needed can identify problems before cancer develops. Prevention is always better than treatment. Other HPV-related cancers are also more treatable when diagnosed and treated early.
HPV is classified as a sexually transmitted disease (STD), due to the way in which it is transmitted (usually during sexual intercourse).
Vaccination is an effective way to prevent contracting HPV. National and international recommendations are to vaccinate young adolescents against HPV before they become sexually active. Studies show that the body’s immune response to the vaccine is best between 9-14 years of age. Vaccination is still recommended for people who have had sexual contact, even though they may be already infected with one of the types of HPV.
If used correctly, condoms can help reduce the risk of genital HPV, and also provide protection against other sexually transmitted diseases. However, because HPV is transmitted through genital skin contact (not just sexual intercourse), condoms don’t provide 100% protection against HPV.
Vaccination and cervical cancer screening (with regular cervical screening tests) are complementary measures – both are recommended. For further information regarding how to prevent HPV, speak with your healthcare professional.
Sources & Citations
1. Queensland Government Department of Health. Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Available at: http://conditions.health.qld.gov.au/HealthCondition/condition/14/217/80/human-papillomavirus-hpv (accessed 14 December 2021).
2. Australian Government Department of Health. HPV (Human papillomavirus). Available at: https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/hpv-human-papillomavirus (accessed 14 December 2021).
3. Australian Government Department of Health. The Australian Immunisation Handbook – Human papillomavirus (HPV). Available at: https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/vaccine-preventable-diseases/human-papillomavirus-hpv (accessed 14 December 2021).
4. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital HPV Infection – Fact Sheet. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/std/HPV/STDFact-HPV.htm (accessed 14 December 2021).
MAT-AU-2102490 Date of preparation March 2022Show All