HPV and cancer – what do you need to know?

Publish Date: 14/06/2013

Michael Douglas caused some raised eyebrows the other week, when he announced that his throat cancer had been caused by HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) contracted through oral sex, rather than by smoking. Some of what he said has since been questioned by health experts, not least his claim that more oral sex helped to cure the cancer! But the coverage caused many to question exactly what HPV is, what the risks are of contracting it and what we can do to protect ourselves.

HPV is also linked to cervical cancer. As this week is Cervical Screening Awareness Week, we thought we should share some information about HPV and its links to cancer, as well as highlighting the need for all women who are sexually active to have regular cervical screening.

What is HPV?

HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) is very common. At some point in our life most of us will contract some type of the virus. In the majority of cases the body’s immune system will clear or get rid of the virus without the need for further treatment - you may not even know that you had contracted the virus.

There are over 100 identified types of HPV. The virus infects the skin and mucosa (moist membranes such as the lining of the mouth and throat, the cervix and the anus). Different types of HPV infect different areas of the body and have different symptoms: for example, HPV types 1 and 2 cause verrucas on the feet.

Some types of HPV are sexually transmitted and are therefore classified as sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Genital warts are caused by HPV types 6 and 11. Other types of HPV (particularly types 16 and 18) have been linked to cervical cancer and other types of cancer, including anal cancer, but this doesn’t mean that you will automatically get cancer if you are infected with HPV.

How is HPV spread?

HPV spreads easily via skin-to-skin contact. This means that it can be passed between sexual partners through various sexual activities, including vaginal or anal penetration, oral sex or mutual masturbation. Using barrier methods (such as condoms, dental dams or latex gloves) will reduce but not eliminate the risk of transmission. Because HPV is so easily transmitted it is estimated that more than 50% of men and women catch the virus within three years of becoming sexually active.

To find out more about sexually transmitted HPV click here.

Isn’t there a vaccination against HPV now?

Yes, there are two vaccinations (Gardasil and Cervarix) which protect against certain strains of HPV, although neither of them guards against all strains. Both vaccines protect against the strains of HPV that most commonly cause cervical cancer and Gardasil also protects against genital warts. Gardasil is currently offered on the NHS to all girls aged 12 or 13. Boys and older girls/women are not offered the vaccine on the NHS but can pay to have it privately. However, the vaccine is not usually recommended for people who are already sexually active as it is likely that they will already have been exposed to HPV.

To find out more about the HPV vaccine click here.

What’s the link between HPV and cancer?

It’s not exactly clear how HPV causes cancer and only a minority of HPV infections will result in cancer. However, nearly all cases of cervical cancer are linked to HPV along with about 85% of anal cancer cases and around half of vaginal, vulvar, and penile cancers. HPV has also been shown to cause some mouth and throat cancers. Smoking and/or having a weakened immune system can increase your risk of developing cancer if you are infected with HPV. Men who have sex with men may be at higher risk of developing anal cancer as they are more likely to contract HPV through anal sex but there isn’t enough evidence to prove this definitely.  

To find out more about the symptoms of different types of cancer click here.

To find out more about the links between HPV and cancer click here.

So why do we need cervical screening (smear tests)?

Cervical cancer is rare – each year around 11 women per 100,000 will be diagnosed with the disease. If caught early it is very treatable. For this reason, all women aged between 25 and 64 are recommended to have regular screening (smear tests). In the past, some women who have sex with women were incorrectly told they didn’t need to go for cervical screening. This information was wrong: all women who have a cervix and are or have been sexually active and are aged between 25 and 64 should attend regular cervical screening. Trans men who still have a cervix should also have cervical screening.  

To find out more about cervical screening and why lesbian and bisexual women need to attend go to www.lgf.org.uk/screening.

If you want further information about safer sex for lesbian, gay or bisexual people or need free condoms, dental dams or lube, call us on 0845 3 30 30 30 or email info@lgf.org.uk