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HPV (human papillomavirus)

HPV stands for ‘human papillomavirus’, which is a group of more than 100 viruses. 

HPV is very common - most people will be infected with a form of HPV in their lifetime. HPV infection is most common in people in their late teens and early 20s.

You can catch HPV by being sexually active with another person who already has the virus.

Most HPV infections do not need treatment because your body can clear the virus itself. But in some people, the HPV infection can develop into cancer or genital warts.

Cancers caused by HPV in Ireland

HPV causes 1 in 20 cancers worldwide. It is one of the leading causes of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is a cancer of a woman's cervix (the entrance to the womb).

The HPV virus also causes:

  • 9 out of 10 vulval and anal cancers 
  • 8 out of 10 vaginal cancers
  • 9 out of 10 cases of genital warts

Each year in Ireland: 

  • HPV causes 406 cancers in both women and men
  • over 6,500 women need hospital treatment for pre-cancer of the cervix
  • 300 women get cervical cancer 
  • 90 women die from cervical cancer

HPV can also cause cancers of the:

  • mouth and throat (oropharynx)
  • anus (rectum)
  • penis

The HPV virus can also cause a range of pre-cancerous lesions (abnormal cells) in both men and women. 

How you get HPV

You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the virus. It is most commonly spread during vaginal or anal sex. HPV can be passed on even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms.

Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV, even if you have had sex with only one person. You can also develop symptoms years after you have sex with someone who is infected. This makes it hard to know when you first became infected. You may also have no signs or symptoms.

Although HPV is usually passed through sexual contact, you can also get it if you have never had sex. A mother can pass HPV to her baby during birth, but this is very rare.

Men who have sex with men

The risk of anal cancer in men who have sex with men (MSM) is higher than in heterosexual men. MSM are more likely to get genital warts.

HPV vaccination is a very effective way to reduce your risk of:

  • genital warts
  • developing HPV-associated cancer in the future

Protection from HPV

Always use condoms every time you have sex. This can lower your chances of getting HPV.

HPV can infect areas not covered by a condom – so condoms will not fully protect you from getting HPV.

The HPV vaccine protects against genital warts, cervical cancer and other cancers.

HPV screening

A screening test looks to see if you might be at greater risk of developing cancer in the future.

HPV screening for females

Even if you have had the HPV vaccine, you should have your cervical screening test (smear test) every time it's due. This is because the HPV vaccine doesn't give complete protection against cervical cancer.

Read more about when you should have a cervical screening test.

Read more about cervical screening.

HPV screening for males

There is no HPV screening currently available for males. The HPV vaccine is your best chance at protecting yourself against genital warts and HPV-related cancers.