What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus (also known as HPV) is a common, contagious virus spread through sexual contact. Different types of HPV affect different parts of the body.
HPV infection can be serious. It can cause cancers, including cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis and anus, and some head and neck cancers. Some types can also cause genital warts.
Two types – 16 and 18 – cause up to 80 per cent of the cervical cancers in women and up to 90 per cent of HPV-related cancers in men. Types six and 11 cause approximately 95 per cent of genital warts.
What are the symptoms of HPV?
Most people infected with HPV do not have any symptoms.
Some types of HPV can cause genital warts, which appear as small growths on or around the genitals and anus. The warts may be:
- flat or raised
- single or multiple
If you are infected with a type of HPV that causes cancer, the virus can cause changes to the cells. This can eventually lead to cancer. There are usually no symptoms, but some people may notice:
- bleeding after sex
- pain during sex
- abnormal period, vaginal bleeding or discharge
- pain in the pelvis.
It is important to know that not all HPV infections lead to cancer.
Who is at risk from HPV?
Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of getting HPV.
How do you get HPV?
HPV spreads when you have sexual contact with someone who is infected with HPV.
How do you prevent HPV?
Vaccination safely and effectively protects you against the types of HPV that most commonly cause cervical cancer or genital warts.
In women, vaccination may help protect against cervical cancer, some vaginal, vulval and anal cancers and genital warts.
In men, vaccination may help protect against genital warts and some anal cancers.
Visit the HPV immunisation service page for more information on receiving the HPV vaccine.
Gardasil 9, introduced on the National Immunisation Program in 2018, protects against 9 strains of HPV that cause over 90% of cervical cancers in Australia. It does not protect against all types of HPV.
Regular cervical screening for women is another important way to protect against cervical cancer. Even if you have had the HPV vaccine, all women between the ages of 25 and 74 who have ever been sexually active should have regular cervical screening tests.
Cervical screening has changed in Australia. The Pap test has been replaced with a new cervical screening test. The cervical screening test is more accurate at detecting changes in the cervix than the previous Pap test. The new test detects the HPV.
For more information about the changes to cervical screening, see the National Cervical Screening Program.
It is difficult to stop HPV spreading, which is why vaccination is so important. To help stop HPV spreading further, people who already have HPV should wear condoms during sex. Remember, this only protects the covered region.
How do you know if you have HPV?
If you think you or one of your family members has HPV, see your doctor.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and do an examination. For women, if your doctor thinks you have a cervical HPV infection, they will take a sample of cells collected from your cervix. They will send this sample to the laboratory for testing. A positive HPV test does not mean that you have cancer. It will need to be followed up with your doctor.
For more information on the cervical screening test, see About the Cervical Screening Test.
How do you get treated for HPV?
There is no treatment for a HPV infection. Most infections clear within a year without any treatment. HPV infections of the cervix can be followed up to check that they have cleared. Follow-up treatment will also address any changes in the cervix before cancer develops.
Your doctor can help you treat visible genital warts with cryotherapy (freezing the warts off), or some antiviral lotions or creams. If this does not work, and the warts are severe, they can be removed by laser treatment in a hospital.
This treatment can only treat visible warts. Further warts can re-appear even after treatment.
- The National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance has resources for consumers.
- See the Australian Immunisation Handbook for technical details.
If you need advice or more information about immunisation, go to our Immunisation contacts page.