What is HPV?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common type of viral STI in Ireland. HPV can cause Genital Warts and certain types of cancer, most commonly cervical cancer in women.

As the HPV types which cause Genital Warts are considered to be low-risk, you are not at high risk of developing a cancer from these viral types.

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Sexually transmitted HPVs fall into two categories:

  • Low-risk HPVs which do not cause cancer but can cause skin warts on or around the genitals or anus. Types 6 and 11 cause 90% of Genital Warts.
  • High-risk HPVs which can cause cancer. Fourteen high-risk HPV types have been identified. Two of these, types 16 and 18, are responsible for the majority of HPV-caused cancers.

What are Genital Warts?

Genital Warts may be either flat or bumpy, resembling raspberries or cauliflowers in appearance. The warts begin as small red or pink growths. In some cases, warts can grow as large as four inches across, interfering with intercourse and childbirth. However, they are usually much smaller. Growths may also be hidden or invisible, so regular HPV testing is recommended.

Did you know? …

HPV are a group of over 100 viruses, some of which can be sexually transmitted and cause Genital Warts, cervical cancer and other cancers. Click here to see the full article.

How can I catch it?

HPV is highly infectious and can be transmitted through touch including sexual contact. This includes oral, anal, or vaginal sexual intercourse. It is possible for you to catch it or pass it on, even if you or your partner is wearing a condom. This is because the condom does not cover the whole genital area. It is very difficult to know if your partner is carrying the virus as the infected person will often have no symptoms.

There is no reliable test in men who do not have symptoms. Genital Warts do not have to be present on the carrier for their partner to become infected with the virus as it can also be caught from touching the skin of the infected person as well as through sexual fluids.

What are the signs and symptoms?

It is difficult to tell whether you have the virus because many types of HPV cause no symptoms. Some types cause Genital Warts, which may look like small pink spots, raised bumps or cauliflower shaped warts. In men, these warts tend to form on the shaft, head or base of the penis. In women, these warts may form in or around the vagina or the labia or "lips".

The more serious types of HPV (High Risk HPV) are those which cause cancers and usually do not have any visible symptoms. Therefore, the only way to find out if you have any type is to get tested. For women, it is extremely important to get tested regularly through cervical smears, given the risks of developing cervical cancer. For MSM, having regular anal swabs is equally important.

How can I test for HPV?

Better2Know offers a comprehensive suite of tests for women and men. For women, we offer a full examination of your HPV status and cervical health.

For women, the following testing options are available:

  1. Better2Know combined PAP smear and HPV test - Recommended for women who are concerned about their HPV status and cervical health. This combined test will look for any changes to the cells of your cervix as well as testing you for 20 types of the virus.
  2. Better2Know PAP smear - Uses a small brush to collect cells from your cervix and these cells will be examined for any trace of abnormalities. With this test, and only if any abnormalities are detected, the sample will be automatically tested for the relevant virus types.
  3. Better2Know HPV test - Obtains a sample from an appropriate site that is tested using a PCR method to detect up to 20 high-risk and low-risk viral types. It should be noted that this test may disrupt the cells of the cervix rendering them unsuitable to PAP testing for a period of time.

For men, Better2Know offers swab tests. Your Better2Know doctor will determine the appropriate site (visible wart, urethra, or anus) for sampling.

Results are available five days from when your sample is received in the testing laboratory.

If left untreated, what are the health risks?

Genital Warts may enlarge during pregnancy due to hormones. If the warts become large enough, they could become an obstacle to delivery, resulting in a caesarean section. In some instances, warts are passed from mother to child during childbirth, leading to a potentially life-threatening condition for new-borns in which warts develop in the throat (Laryngeal Papillomatosis).

Persistent HPV infections are now recognised as the major cause of cervical cancer and may play a role in some cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, and penis. Studies have also found that an oral HPV infection is a strong risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer (cancer that forms in tissues of the oropharynx, which is the middle part of the throat and includes the soft palate, the base of the tongue and the tonsils).

What if I test positive for HPV/Genital Warts?

If you do test positive for HPV or Genital Warts, Better2Know will arrange an appropriate confidential follow-up consultation to access treatment as needed. You will be referred to a specialist who will be able to recommend follow-up tests and provide advice on the most appropriate treatment for you. Alternatively, this can be arranged through your own GP.

Genital Warts can be managed and treated through various methods including creams, lasers, surgery and cryotherapy (which involves freezing the infected cells). Repeat courses of treatment may be required to remove the infected tissue fully.

The virus itself, however, cannot be cured by external treatment although, in some people, it will clear naturally over time. There are organisations who can support you such as The STI Project, an online forum for people to share their stories.

Can I get an HPV vaccine?

You can choose to be vaccinated against types 6 and 11 (which cause 90% of Genital Warts) and types 16 and 18 (which cause 70% of cervical cancers). See our vaccines page for more details.

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Better2Know is the world’s largest private provider of sexual health testing services. We will arrange a confidential appointment at a clinic near you with fast and accurate results for your peace of mind. Book online or call our Sexual Health Advisors now.

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