Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a common virus that affects all genders. There are more than 100 types of the virus. Most types of HPV are harmless, do not cause any symptoms, and go away on their own.
There are about 40 types of HPV that affect the genital area. Most people who have had any kind of sexual activity will be infected with HPV at some time in their lives, but most will clear it naturally.
Certain HPV types can cause genital warts.
Other ‘high risk’ HPV types can cause cell changes that can lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat. This usually takes over 10 years.
Visible warts are an indicator of HPV infection. However, HPV infection usually has no signs or symptoms.
Certain types of HPV affecting the cells in the cervix can be detected by Cervical Screening Tests.
The HPV infection itself cannot be cured. In most people, the virus is naturally cleared within 1-2 years.
Genital warts can be easily treated. Treating warts as soon as they appear reduces the spread of the virus.
The Cervical Screening Test detects HPV and it also looks for early changes in the cells of the cervix. A Cervical Screening Test every 5 years is a great way to protect against cervical cancer by finding early changes so they can be monitored and treated, if needed.
HPV is spread through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person, most commonly through sexual contact.
The virus is usually passed from person to person without signs or symptoms.
Most people who have HPV are not aware they have the virus. This explains why genital HPV spreads easily among sexually active people. It is unknown how long a person with HPV remains infectious or can pass the virus on to a sexual partner.
The risk of HPV transmission from mother to baby during labour and birth is extremely low.
Preventing the spread of HPV involves being vaccinated, practising safe sex, and regular Cervical Screening Tests.
Some types of HPV infection can be prevented. The HPV vaccine protects against nine types of HPV that are the most common causes of cervical cancer and genital warts in Australia.
Immunisation against HPV is recommended as part of the Queensland School Immunisation Program. The National Immunisation Program (NIP) provides funded HPV vaccine for all Year 7 students, as well as catch up-vaccine for people up to and including the age of 25 years.
If vaccination is provided through a GP or other primary care provider instead of at school, the vaccine will be funded but there may be a consultation fee.
The benefits of HPV vaccination are greatest when it is given before exposure to the virus.
HPV vaccination is not routinely recommended for people 26 years and older because HPV infection generally occurs soon after sexual activity commences. Vaccine effectiveness is reduced if there has been a prior infection. However, some people 26 years and over may also benefit from being vaccinated and should speak to their GP for advice related to their individual circumstances.
The vaccine should not be given during pregnancy but is safe for breastfeeding women.
All vaccinations, including HPV vaccination, are recorded on the Australian Immunisation Register.
Practise safe sex, talk to your partners about sexual health, and make sure you get enthusiastic consent. Condoms are the best way to prevent sexually transmissible infections (STIs) and using them with a water-based lubricant will be more pleasurable and reduce the risk of the condom breaking. Using condoms, dental dams or gloves can reduce the spread of HPV but will not completely remove the risk as other areas of skin where virus is present may not be covered. Spermicidal foams, creams and gels have not been shown to have any effect against HPV.
Cervical Screening Test
HPV is the cause of almost all cervical cancers. Cervical Screening Tests for women and people with a cervix are recommended every 5 years between the ages of 25 to 74 years to check for the presence of HPV and any changes to the cells of the cervix.
People can choose for their healthcare provider to collect their Cervical Screening Test sample or to take their own sample from the vagina (self-collection).
Regular Cervical Screening Tests are still important for people vaccinated against HPV since the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
Cervical Screening Tests detect HPV and early cell changes so they can be monitored and treated, if needed. This can prevent cancer from developing.
The Cervical Screening Test is not a test for other STIs and it does not test for cancer of the ovary or uterus.
Most HPV infections do not cause any symptoms and most people will have an HPV infection at some point in their lives but clear it naturally.
For a few people, the virus is not cleared by the body and can cause changes in cells that can lead to cancer, including cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat.
Being vaccinated against HPV in Year 7 is the best way to protect against HPV-related disease.
Having a Cervical Screening Test every 5 years protects against cervical cancer by detecting HPV as well as early cell changes so they can be monitored and treated, if needed.
- HPV vaccination - National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance
- Sexual Health
- Cervical screening
- National Cervical Cancer Screening Program
- For short animations about common STIs, see Queensland Health’s YouTube channel Your Sexual Health.
- For comprehensive safe sex, STIs, testing and treatment information for young adults see Stop the Rise of STIs.
- For videos and resources developed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities see Young Deadly Free.
- For information on genital warts and HPV in Arabic, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Thai, or Vietnamese go to the StaySTIFree website. Other translated resources about STIs are available from the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland
Get qualified health advice 24/7 for the cost of a local call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84).
This factsheet provides general information and is not intended to replace the need to see a health professional or have a sexual health check. For more information on HPV or sexual health please talk to a healthcare provider. A doctor, nurse or health worker can assist with:
- providing appropriate tests, treatment and information about how to prevent STIs
- helping people to ensure that their sexual partners get tested and treated.
You can be immunised against HPV at your local doctor or medical centre. Check with your local council, community child health and community health centre regarding free immunisation clinics.