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What to know about the HPV virus

HPV (human papilloma virus) refers to a group of over 100 similar viruses that affect the skin and moist membranes of the body. HPV can be sexually transmitted, as it occurs in the mouth, cervix and anus.

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Genital warts

The most common STIs caused by HPV are genital warts, which can be fairly easily treated using creams and sometimes cryotherapy (freezing). They are most common amongst sexually active adolescents and using a condom is no protection against them, as the virus can be spread by areas of skin that are not covered. You can have HPV infection for years before warts develop; therefore, if you suddenly develop them, it does not necessarily mean that your partner has slept with someone else. Although you can get rid of the warts fairly easily in the short term, they may be reoccurring.

Although the warts are unsightly, they are usually painless. It is important to understand that having the low risk strain of HPV that causes the warts does not mean you automatically have the strain that can cause cervical cancer. There is more information on the different strains on the NHS website.

Cervical cancer

Regardless of whether you have the warts, it is important to be aware of the potentially life-threatening effects of infection with the cancer-causing high risk form of HPV. There is no method of home diagnostics for this infection; however, you can perform a test at home for some other STIs and send the samples off to a special lab organised by your local GUM clinic. Chlamydia testing kits screen in this way and resources such as checkurself.org have further information about home STI screening. You can also find detailed explanations of the different STIs online and what you can do to protect yourself and your partner.

The high risk strains of HPV cause abnormalities in the cells of your cervix, which can lead to the development of cancerous tissue. Luckily, cervical cancer is very slow growing; therefore, if caught early, the abnormal cells can be removed and you can make a full recovery.

This is why it is important to attend your smear test, which is offered to all women aged between 25 and 64; in addition, girls aged 12-13 are now vaccinated against HPV, which is expected to save 400 lives every year.

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