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What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus.

Genital HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection which usually causes no symptoms and goes away by itself, but can sometimes cause serious illness. HPV is responsible for:

  • almost all cases of genital warts and cervical cancer
  • 90% of anal cancers
  • 65% of vaginal cancers
  • 50% of vulva cancers
  • 35% of penile cancers
  • 60% of oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils).

Four out of five people have at least one type of HPV at some time in their lives. It is sometimes called the 'common cold' of sexual activity. HPV infects both men and women. The virus is spread through intimate contact with genital-skin during sexual activity, via tiny breaks in the skin. Usually this happens without anyone ever knowing it or it causing any problems.

Condoms offer some but not total protection from HPV, as they don't cover all of the genital skin. They do offer protection from many other sexually transmitted infections though, and help prevent unwanted pregnancy.

You can be exposed to HPV the first time sexual activity occurs, from only one sexual partner.

Treating HPV

There is currently no treatment for HPV.

In most cases the immune system clears HPV from the body naturally over time and has no long-lasting effects.

Most people with HPV have no symptoms and will never know they have it. For women, having regular Pap tests once they become sexually active is the only way to detect abnormal cells on the cervix caused by HPV.

Genital warts can be treated ­by doctors or at sexual health clinics.

HPV and cancer

There are many different HPV types, which are considered either 'low-risk' or 'high-risk'. 

Some high-risk HPV types can cause serious illness including cancer.

Sometimes HPV does not clear the body naturally – usually when the infection is with high-risk types­. We call this 'persistent' HPV infection.

Persistent HPV infection can cause abnormal cells to develop on the cervix, which may develop into cervical cancer, usually over many years, if they remain untreated. Although cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer caused by HPV, persistent infection is also known to cause other cancers affecting men and women, including penile, anal, vulval, vaginal and mouth/throat.

HPV and genital warts

Having genital warts does not mean you are at risk of cancer.

Genital warts are caused by low-risk types of HPV, which do not cause cancer.

Genital warts are a very common sexually transmitted infection in Australia, especially in young people.

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Design and partial content reproduced with the kind permission of the New Zealand Ministry of Health.

The HPV vaccine is a prescription medicine. Medicines have benefits and risks. After reading this website, talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of this vaccine and to check eligibility.

Females who have had the HPV vaccine still need regular Pap tests.