7 common questions about HPV and the HPV vaccine

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Mr Tim Mould, Consultant Gynaecological Oncologist at The Portland Hospital and The Princess Grace Hospital, both part of HCA Healthcare UK, answers the top 7 most commonly asked questions about HPV – including how common HPV is and whether you can have the HPV vaccine as an adult.

1. What is HPV?

HPV (human papillomavirus) is a common virus that at least 8 in 10 of us will have at some point in our lives. There are over 160 types of HPV – each with its own number. Thirteen types of HPV are linked to cancer and are called high-risk HPV. In most cases, your immune system will be able to get rid of the virus without you even knowing you had it, but in some cases, it can cause cells to change.

Attending regular cervical screening appointments means that HPV can be detected and monitored, and any abnormal cells can be identified and treated early.

2. How do you contract HPV?

HPV is typically passed on through sexual contact. Whilst using protection can reduce your risk of a HPV infection, it doesn’t offer complete protection. Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of getting HPV. In 9 out of 10 people, your immune system will get rid of the virus within two years. As HPV often doesn’t have symptoms, it's important to have regular smear tests, which look for HPV.

3. Is HPV an STI?

Whilst HPV can be sexually transmitted, it isn’t considered an STI. It usually causes no harm and isn’t checked for in a sexual health check. HPV can be passed on during protected and unprotected sex and is impossible to fully prevent. It’s also absolutely nothing you should be embarrassed or ashamed about - remember most of us will have HPV at some point in our lives.

4. What is the HPV vaccine and when can I have it?

The HPV vaccine helps protect against cancers caused by HPV, including cervical cancer. The vaccine is usually given as two or three injections over six months. The vaccine helps your immune system protect you from getting HPV and consequently reduces your risk of being diagnosed with cancers caused by HPV. 

In the past, the HPV vaccine was only available to girls, however since September 2019, the vaccine is now offered free in schools to girls and boys who are aged 12-13 in the UK and 11-12 in Scotland. If for any reason you didn’t have the HPV vaccine whilst at school, you can get the vaccine for free up until the age of 25. 

If you’re above the age of 25 and haven’t yet had the vaccine but would like to – you can access this vaccine privately. We provide HPV vaccinations at our GP clinics and hospitals, if you would like to find out more, or book an appointment please contact us now.

5. Will having the HPV vaccine prevent all cases of cervical cancer?

The HPV vaccine protects against high-risk types of HPV that can cause cancer, and low-risk types of HPV which can cause genital warts. A recent study into the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine has revealed that having the vaccine between the ages of 12 and 13 can reduce cases of cervical cancer by nearly 90%. So, although it can’t provide complete protection against all cervical cancers, it protects against the most common types of HPV which can cause cervical cancer.

6. If I’ve had the HPV vaccine, do I still need to go for regular cervical screening?

Yes, because whilst the HPV vaccine protects against most types of cervical cancers, it doesn’t protect you against all strains, so it’s important you still attend your regular cervical screening appointments once you reach the age of 25.

7. What happens if I test positive for HPV after cervical screening?

Every three to five years you will be invited for cervical screening to test for HPV. If, following this examination, you test positive for HPV, then you will be referred to a gynaecologist for further tests. Try not to worry as this is common and in most cases nothing to worry about.

In your appointment with your gynaecologist, they will carry out a colposcopy – where they will look at your cervix for any abnormal cell changes. It shouldn’t be painful but can sometimes be a little uncomfortable.

If there are no abnormal cell changes, then you won’t require any further examinations, but will be referred for more regular cervical screening to ensure that there are still no changes.

If abnormal cells are found, then your gynaecologist may suggest that these are removed. This can either be done at the same time as your colposcopy or can be carried out as a separate procedure. Removal of the abnormal cells will prevent a cancer developing.

If at any point you notice any changes that are unusual for you and are not going away, book to see your GP or gynaecologist – don't wait until your next cervical screening appointment.

Book your private HPV vaccine here