Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a virus that infects the skin and the cells lining cavities such as the mouth and nose. It can spread easily though close skin-to-skin contact, often during sexual activity.
It’s a relatively common virus that 70 to 80 per cent of women will contract at some stage in life but many will not even be aware that they have the virus and most (95 per cent) will clear it through their natural immunity. However, in some cases it may not clear, causing abnormal smear test results and leading to further symptoms and conditions.
If left untreated, HPV can lead to genital warts or, less commonly, cervical cancer. It is therefore very important all women are aware of the virus and signs to look out for. Here to highlight the things you should know about HPV is Dr Christine Ekechi, Consultant Gynaecoloist at The Portland Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK:
HPV can lead to cervical cancer
“There are around 12 ‘high-risk’ types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, although it is uncommon that contact with these types will lead to cervical cancer particularly with regular screening checks. In some people with persistent ‘high-risk’ HPV infections, the virus damages the cells' DNA and causes cells to start dividing and growing out of control, possibly leading to cervical cancer.”
Regular smear tests are important
“It’s important to stay on top of your sexual health checks and go for regular smear tests. It is recommended that you go for a smear test every three years, as this will help you spot any abnormal cells before the virus turns into cervical cancer. Specific HPV testing is also available to detect any abnormalities, which can be undertaken during your sexual health checks.”
HPV can cause warts
“HPV infections normally start in the deepest layers of the skin and cause skin cells to divide more than usual. New virus particles are then created inside these cells. This fast skin growth can cause warts to develop, including genital warts, which will need to be seen by a doctor.”
HPV is not always visible
“Most HPV types do not have any visible symptoms, so it is difficult to tell if someone is carrying the virus, including yourself. It is therefore important that you use condoms as protection during any sexual activity, as the virus is spread through close skin-to-skin contact.”
Vaccine is a good defence
“Although condoms are important when protecting yourself during sexual activity, they are not fool proof. This is because HPV can be present in the entire genital area, not just contained to the area covered by a condom. Vaccination is available for some of the ‘high risk’ types of HPV. A vaccine for HPV is now available at The Portland Hospital. This offers excellent protection and your consultant will be able to advise you appropriately if the vaccine is right for you.”
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