HPV Explained: your questions answered

HPV Explained is tackling the stigma and raising awareness of the facts around HPV. Here, we answer your questions about HPV and cervical screening.

Why is Yorkshire Cancer Research focusing on HPV Explained?

HPV Explained has been launched by Yorkshire Cancer Research to increase awareness of the facts and reduce stigma around HPV.

New research in Yorkshire shows that misunderstandings about HPV could put people off attending cervical screening appointments. Research also found that one in two people in the region believe that there is a stigma associated with HPV.

In Yorkshire, more than a quarter of those invited do not attend cervical screening. That’s about 360,000 people.

Cervical screening is not a test for cancer but rather a test to help prevent cancer. Cervical cancer is almost completely preventable but every year in Yorkshire 250 people receive a cervical cancer diagnosis and 60 people sadly lose their lives.

It is your choice if you want to attend cervical screening, but we encourage everyone invited to attend. Doing so is one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer and it is estimated that it saves around 4500 lives in England each year.

Who is featured in HPV Explained?

Dr Kathryn Scott; Chief Executive, Yorkshire Cancer Research

Dr Amir Khan; Bradford GP and author

Dr Jo Waller; Cancer Behavioural Scientist, Kings College London

Sarah Bolton; Nurse Colposcopist, Hull and East Riding Hospitals, NHS Trust

Luxmy Gopal; Journalist and Presenter, BBC Look North

Kelly Wilson

Naggina Asaf

What is HPV?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that is passed on through any sexual contact. HPV infections are common and have no symptoms. Four in five men and women will have HPV in their lifetime.

There are many types of HPV, some of which are ‘high-risk’ and linked to certain cancers.

Most HPV infections are cleared by the immune system, but in a small number of cases the infection doesn’t clear and can cause cell changes in the cervix (the opening to the womb). Over time, these changes can develop into cervical cancer.

How is HPV tested for?

High-risk HPV is tested for through cervical screening.

Those screened receive a positive or negative HPV result. If your result is negative, you will be invited back for another screening in three or five years, depending on your age.

What happens if I test positive for HPV?

If you test positive for HPV, the sample from your cervical screening will be checked for changes to the cells in your cervix.

If changes are found, these can be treated before they become cancer.

If no cell changes are detected, you will be invited back for another screening in a year to see if your body has naturally cleared the HPV infection, and to check that there have been no cell changes in that time.

Is HPV a sexually transmitted infection (STI)?

Although HPV is spread through sexual contact, labelling it as an STI contributes to the stigma associated with this common virus.

It can't be prevented through using protection like condoms and can be spread through all sexual skin-to-skin contact. Most STIs can be treated, but there is no treatment for HPV itself, although there are treatments for conditions caused by HPV.

What is the difference between HPV and herpes?

HPV and herpes (‘herpes simplex virus’ or HSV) can often be confused, but they are not the same thing.

HPV has no symptoms. There is no treatment for HPV, although there are treatments for the conditions caused by HPV, such as genital warts and cancer. You may not know you have HPV unless you attend your cervical screening. If you engage in any sexual activity, you cannot fully protect yourself from getting or passing on HPV.

Herpes usually presents itself with sores and blisters or itching or pain after infection. You can protect yourself from getting or passing on herpes through practicing safe sex and using protection. You are diagnosed with herpes through examination of symptoms.

Can I get HPV more than once?

Yes, you can be infected with HPV multiple times throughout your life, therefore it is important to attend your cervical screening each time you are invited.

What about the HPV vaccine?

In England, the HPV vaccine is routinely offered to girls and boys aged 12 and 13 years, when they are in school Year 8.

It is offered in two doses, and the second dose is offered six to 24 months after the first. It is important to have both doses to be properly protected.

If you’re eligible and miss the HPV vaccine offered in Year 8 at school, it is free on the NHS up until your 25th birthday for females born after 1 September 1991, and males born after 1 September 2006.

For more information on getting your HPV vaccine, visit the NHS website.

How effective is the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine helps protect against the high-risk types of HPV which cause the majority of cervical cancers in the UK. The HPV vaccine is very effective at protecting against cervical cancer, but it does not protect against all types of HPV, and it is still possible to develop cervical cancer after having the vaccine.

It is important to attend your cervical screening when invited even if you have had the HPV vaccine.

What happens at my cervical screening appointment?

During screening, you will be asked to undress from the waist down and given a sheet to put over you. You’ll be asked to lie on a bed with your knees bent.

The nurse will put a tube-shaped plastic instrument called a speculum into your vagina and open it to see your cervix.

They will use a soft brush to take a small sample from your cervix. The speculum will then be removed.

The screening process usually lasts about five minutes, and the whole appointment will be no longer than 10 minutes. The test is usually done by a female nurse or doctor who will explain what will happen during the test and answer any questions you have.

For most people, cervical screening feels uncomfortable or a little strange, but shouldn’t be painful. However, some women do find that it hurts, particularly if they have pre-existing medical conditions which affect the cervix or vagina. Tell the nurse or doctor performing the test if you have any concerns about pain or pre-existing conditions as adjustments can be made to make the procedure more comfortable, such as using a smaller speculum.

It’s also important to speak to a doctor or nurse if you are worried about cervical screening due to previous experiences of sexual violence. There is help and support available.

Who should attend cervical screening?

Women and people with a cervix aged 25 to 64 should attend cervical screenings when invited.

This includes those who have had the HPV vaccine, those in long-term relationships, and those who are not currently sexually active.

When will I be invited for cervical screening?

In England, you will be invited for cervical screening through a letter in the post if you are aged 25 to 64 and registered as female with your GP. Between the ages of 25 and 49 you will be invited every three years and between 50 to 64 you will be invited every five years. You may be invited to screening more regularly depending on your results to ensure those at a higher risk of cervical cancer are regularly monitored.

If you are 65 or older, you will only be automatically invited for screening if one of your last three tests found cell changes. If you have never been for a cervical screening, or have not been since the age of 50, you can still receive screening by making an appointment through your GP.

Trans men and non-binary people with a cervix are also eligible for cervical screening.

Do I still need to attend my screening if I’ve had my HPV vaccination?

Yes. It is important to attend your cervical screening even if you’ve had your HPV vaccination. The vaccination is highly effective in preventing cervical cancer, but it does not protect against all types of HPV. It is still possible to be diagnosed with cervical cancer even if you have had the HPV vaccine.

Do I still need to attend my screening if I’m not currently sexually active?

Yes. You still need to attend your screening if you’re not currently sexually active. HPV can sometimes lie dormant for years, and then become active again, which could cause cervical cell changes.

Do I still need to attend my screening if I’m in a long-term relationship?

Yes. You should attend your screening if you’re in a long-term relationship. HPV can lie dormant in our system for many years and then become active again. This means that someone in a long-term, monogamous relationship could test positive for HPV years after initial infection.

It is not always possible to work out where a HPV infection has come from, and it does not mean that a partner has been unfaithful.

Where can I find out more about cervical screening?

To find out more about cervical screening, you can visit the NHS website or contact your GP practice.