Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the name for a group of viruses that affect the skin and the moist membranes lining the body, for example, in the cervix, anus, mouth and throat. There are more than 100 types of HPV.
HPV is most commonly passed on through genital contact, usually during vaginal, oral and anal sex, but it can be transmitted in other ways too, such as through skin-to-skin contact. It can be passed on even when the infected person has no signs or symptom and between straight and same-sex partners.
HPV is very common and almost every sexually-active person will get HPV at some time in their lives. Most people with HPV never develop symptoms or health problems. 90% of HPV infections go away by themselves within two years and don’t affect the health of most people. But sometimes HPV infections persist and may cause a variety of serious problems.
Infection with some types of HPV can lead to:
Abnormal tissue growth and other changes to cells in some parts of the body, which can cause cancer
Genital warts, which is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the UK
HPV types 16 and 18 are the high-risk types that most commonly cause cancer. HPV types 6 and 11 cause most cases of genital warts. Other types of HPV infection can cause minor problems, such as common skin warts and verrucas.
Infection with HPV is the cause of almost all cervical cancers, as well as a significant number of cancers of the vulva and vagina in women and the penis in men. HPV also contributes to cancers of the anus, head and neck in both sexes. It is estimated to be the causal agent in 5% of all human cancers.
HPV infection (mostly types 6 and 11) can, rarely, also cause a condition known as recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP). Affecting children as well as adults, multiple warts grow within the airway and breathing passages resulting in hoarseness and an altered voice but more importantly breathing difficulties.
Although the link between HPV and cervical cancer has received most attention, HPV is certainly not just a women’s health problem. It is clearly a men’s health problem too.
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