HPV is a very very common infection. It can be caught from having sex or skin on skin contact with someone. Although it sounds scary it only very rarely causes problems.

(Here’s the more general guide to STIs)

It’s incredibly common. Most adults who have sex will probably have been exposed to it and probably without knowing. It’s completely different from both HIV and HSV (Herpes Simplex Virus). Actually HPV is getting less and less common in the UK because of the HPV vaccine.

Although it sounds worrying you should know that there are loads of different kinds of HPV most of which are harmless.

In the vast majority of cases it doesn’t cause any problems. The body usually clears itself of HPV. In fact it doesn’t usually have symptoms so people could have had it and not realised at all. Where people do get symptoms of being infected it may well be genital warts.

How is HPV transmitted

Usually we don’t know that we have HPV

HPV can be caught from having penis in vagina or penis in anus sex but also from skin on skin contact. So although condoms can prevent it being passed on they aren’t as effective at preventing HPV as they are with other STIs such as HIV, chlamydia or gonorrhoea. If someone has an outbreak of HPV on any part of their genital area that isn’t covered by a condom it can be passed onto the other person. Usually we don’t know that we have HPV so in most cases this happens without people realising.

HPV and cancer

A small number of the many many types of HPV are linked to certain types of cancers. Particularly cervical cancer but also cancer of the penis, anus and maybe cancers of the throat. These cancers are really not common (2% of all cancers diagnosed in women are cervical cancer). There is a higher risk of developing these kinds of cancers if someone has been exposed to these types of HPV but still many many people don’t get cancer even if they do get these types of HPV.

If you’ve been a teenage woman in the UK over the last few years you may well have been given 3 injections which are to help prevent you from getting cervical cancer. This is because a couple of strains of HPV are linked to cervical cancer. This vaccination will also reduce the number of cases of genital warts in the population too. (However as the vaccination is for girls in the UK it’s not going to prevent the (small) number of anal cancers or penis cancers which affect men (particularly in men who have sex with men)). Learn more about cervical cancer and vaccination here. (If you are over 25 you may be invited for a screen for cervical cancer, if so you should probably go (no shoulds))

Michael Douglas is an Actor With a Film to Promote

You may have read about Michael Douglas who has suffered throat cancer. He says it was caused by a strain of HPV he got from giving oral sex to a woman (cunnilingus – awesome word). We don’t know enough about HPV and throat cancers however some studies suggest that it is a factor in some cases. These cases are on the increase but they are still small in number (though obviously big for folk who get it). You should know that alcohol and smoking are also linked to throat cancer. It’s thought that smoking can stop the body from dealing with HPV by itself which may lead to cancer. We also don’t know how people get HPV in the mouth. It could be from oral sex but some evidence suggests it may even come from open mouth kissing.

How to prevent it

HPV is such a common infection that it’s likely that most adults have been exposed to it

HPV is such a common infection that it’s likely that most adults have been exposed to it – so there’s not a lot we can do to prevent getting it (apart from not having any kind of skin on skin contact with anyone). Although using condoms doesn’t offer a very high protection against HPV with penis in vagina or penis in anus sex they do offer some protection.

If you are worried about what you have heard about the oral sex and HPV you can reduce the risks by using either a condom on a penis (which is why we have flavoured condoms, duh). For oral sex on the clitoris, vagina or anus you can also use a condom (cut one in half lengthways and lick through that) or a ‘dam’ (not easy to find in shops but many sexual health clinics have them for free) or even non-microwavable cling film (this is the cheap stuff at supermarkets, non-microwavable doesn’t have the tiny holes in that the posh stuff has).

Other STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis, and herpes 1&2 can be passed on through oral sex though the risks are generally lower (and the risk of long term effects lower) than penis in vagina or anus sex (without condoms).

Think you might have it?

If you think you might have a strain of HPV you could ask your local clinic for advice (though they may not be able to offer you a test). They will have a look at it and sometimes you can actually just send a photo. If it is HPV then they will give you treatment there and then (usually a cream which you can put on).

Sometimes people think they have HPV when it’s actually something else.

Often people think they have genital warts when actually they have a spot caused by an ingrowing hair in their pubic area (often caused by shaving pubes. Pro-tip: shave with the direction of hair not against). Also some spots around the genitals are normal, called papules (more on that here).

Learn more about what it’s like going for a check up here. All services are free and confidential, even if you’re under 16 (in the UK).

HPV and safer sex

There is no such thing as safe sex, only safer sex.

There is no such thing as safe sex, there is only safer sex. The key point is try to minimise our risks, be sensible and make sure that we are enjoying the sex we do have to make up the for the risk.

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© Justin Hancock, 2023

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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.

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