Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is something many of us have a vague understanding of but there’s often some confusion around the different types, how it’s passed on and HPV’s connection to cervical cancer. We’re here to try to demystify HPV and explain that a HPV diagnosis isn’t necessarily as scary as it might seem.
What are the key facts when it comes to HPV and cervical screening?
- HPV is a common virus.
- 4 out of 5 people who have ever been sexually active have had HPV.
- HPV can impact people regardless of their gender/identity.
- Most HPV infections don’t cause cancer, however there are some types of HPV that are linked with cancer.
- Cervical cancer has been reduced over the years due to HPV vaccination.
- Being vaccinated reduces your risk of cervical cancer but doesn’t completely prevent it, so regular cervical screening tests are recommended.
- Self-collection for cervical screening is now available, it’s safe, easy and accurate.
What is HPV and how does it spread?
HPV is a common virus that is spread through skin-to-skin contact. There are around 100 different types of HPV, around 40 types of HPV tend to live in the genitals (penis, vagina or anus).
The main way you can contract HPV is through unprotected sexual activity such as vaginal, anal or oral sex and fingering or sharing sex toys (without cleaning them in between use). Any sexual activity can spread HPV so even people who haven’t had penis-in-vagina or penis-in-anus sex can get it.
Does HPV have symptoms?
The thing about HPV is you probably won’t know if you have it. This is because for the most part HPV does not have any signs. This can make the virus easy to pass on as you will not know you have HPV.
For most people our immune system will usually clear the virus within 2 years. However, some HPV can persist.
There are types of HPV that are not serious but can cause genital warts. These warts can emerge as single or multiple lumps anywhere on the genital or anal area. There’s no need to be stressed out about these warts as they can be easily treated.
If you have been diagnosed with genitals warts, then it’s a good idea to avoid having unprotected sex until they have gone. If you have a regular partner/s they most likely have also been exposed to HPV so there is no need for alarm.
HPV can be spread even when there are no visible warts.
The types of HPV that cause genital warts don’t cause cervical cancer.
Some types of HPV can lead to the development of HPV related cancers of the genitals, cervix, head or neck. Most people under 40 have been vaccinated against the higher risk HPV but there are still some medium risk HPV that wasn’t included in the vaccine until a couple of years so regular cervical screening tests are still recommended.
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, you should see your doctor or health professional:
- lumps on the vulva, vagina, anus, penis or scrotum
- bleeding after sex
- pain during sex
- unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge.
What should I do about HPV?
If you have a cervix, it’s recommended to have a cervical screen test every 5 years from the age of 25. This test will look for HPV on the cervix and monitor any changes.
There is a vaccine available that can protect against some but not all types of HPV. In SA, this is offered to all school aged children. Even if you have had the HPV vaccination, you should still have regular cervical screening.
Smoking can be related to HPV staying in your body. Stopping smoking reduces your risk of developing HPV related cancers.
If you are told you have HPV don’t panic! You don’t need to do anything extra. Your health professional will tell you if you need more regular testing or to have a special test.
If your partner/s have a penis they don’t need a test or extra vaccination. If your partner/s have a vagina they should have their regular cervical screening when due, they don’t need earlier screening.
Does HPV cause cancer?
Not all types of HPV will cause cancer but the higher risk types can turn into cancer if they do stay in your body for years. HPV on the cervix can cause changes to the cells over many years (10 to 15 years or more). If these cell changes continue, they can turn into cervical cancer. This is why cervical screening tests are important to have every 5 years, so that your healthcare provider can detect early HPV changes and monitor or treat as needed.
What is cervical screening and what are my options for testing?
Cervical screening (previously known as pap smear) involves a simple test to detect HPV. There are now two options for cervical screening including the option of self-collection.
Option 1: Healthcare provider collected sample
The healthcare provider sample is collected in a clinic by a health worker i.e. a doctor or nurse. This will most likely look like the following: You will be asked to remove your clothes from below the waist and to lie down on an examination bed with a sheet to cover you. A speculum (a duck-bill-shaped device) will be gently inserted into your vagina and opened a little so your cervix can be seen. A collection of cells will be taken from the cervix using swab. It may feel strange or uncomfortable, but this shouldn’t hurt.
Option 2: Self-Collection Cervical Screening Tests
For a DIY test you’ll need to see a doctor or health clinic and request a self-collection cervical screening test. Your health worker i.e. doctor or nurse will then provide you with instructions for self-collection. This will enable you to, in private, collect your own cells from your vagina using a cotton swab.
Whichever option you prefer getting a cervical screening test every 5 years is an important part of looking after your sexual health.
Either way your healthcare professional will give you the results and tell you what to do next.
There is a national register which will send you a letter if your cervical screening is overdue. If you don’t want this you can call 1800 627 701 to opt out.
If you have more questions about HPV and cervical screening you can contact SHINE SA’s Sexual Healthline on 1300 883 793, Monday – Friday, 9:00am – 12:30pm.