What is HPV? How the virus is transmitted and what conditions it can cause 2 years ago

What is HPV? How the virus is transmitted and what conditions it can cause

"We really need to be taking the steps to prevention with vaccinations."

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, and yet, so many of us know so little about it.


A recent study found that three quarters of adults in Ireland do not have a complete understanding of what the virus is, or how they can catch it.

In order to understand more about HPV, we chatted to Senior Oncology Nurse from the Marie Keating Foundation, Bernie Carter.

She told Her what HPV is, how it is passed from one person to another, and the conditions that some types of HPV can cause if the infection persists.

So, what is HPV? 

HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, is a sexually transmitted disease that is passed from one person to another through intimate skin-to-skin contact.

The STI is incredibly common, infecting approximately 80 percent of people at least once over the course of their lives.

HPV has no symptoms, and the vast majority of HPV types are low risk, meaning that that they cannot cause cancer.


Rather, the immune system will simply clear the infection without a person ever knowing it was there. Some other types of low risk HPV can cause genital warts.

If a HPV type is high risk, however, and the infection persists, it can lead to some cancers which will be outlined below. The most common cancer caused by HPV is cervical cancer.

What are the risk factors associated with HPV? 

As previously mentioned, it is likely that all sexually active men and women will contract HPV at some point in their lives.

However, it is a small minority of HPV infections that can actually cause cancer.


Despite this, it is important to understand what HPV is and how it is transmitted from one person to another.

“HPV is sexually transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact," says Carter.

"This includes vaginal sex, anal sex, oral sex, and any genital contact. Basically anybody who is sexually active."

Unlike other STIs that are passed from person to person through bodily fluids, HPV is transmitted through close contact. This means that condoms do not provide much protection from the virus.


What conditions can be caused by HPV? 

It's important to note that the vast majority of HPV infections (about 90 percent) are low risk.

This means that they cannot cause cancer. Rather, they could lead to genital warts or will simply clear up on their own.


HPV is made up of over 100 different types of infections. Approximately 13 of these are high risk HPV, meaning that they could go on to cause cancer if the virus persists.

The most common cancer than can be caused by high risk HPV is cervical cancer, with almost every case of this kind of cancer being caused by the virus in women.

Other cancers caused by high risk HPV include vaginal cancer, anal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer (of the throat), vulva cancer, and penis cancer.

“HPV is responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer, with types 16 and 18 causing 70 percent of cervical cancers," says Carter.

“9 out of 10 vulva cancers are caused by high risk HPV, with 8 out of 10 cancers of the vagina being caused by the STI. 9 out of 10 anal cancers are caused by high risk HPV too, with 9 out of 10 cases of genital warts being caused by low risk HPV."

HPV is attributed to approximately 406 cancers in Ireland every year. One quarter of these cases are in male patients.

Women can check if they are infected with high risk HPV by getting a smear test. There is currently no way for men to check.

It's for this reason, says Carter, that vaccinating against the infection from a young age is so important.

"(HPV related) types of cancers are unfortunately increasing in men and that’s the reason why we need to vaccinate both boys and girls," she says.

"Cases of oral cancers in men are expected to overtake cervical cancer rates in 2020. No cancer is nice, but oral cancer is particularly awful.

"We really need to be taking the steps to prevention with vaccinations."

You can read about some of the most common misconceptions and myths about HPV here. 

You can find out more about HPV on the HSE's website here.