The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of viruses that affect the moist areas of the body, such as the mouth, throat or genitals. 

HPV is spread through sexual contact and there are over 200 different types of the virus.

You can get HPV from:

  • Oral, vaginal or anal sex.
  • Skin-to-skin contact of the genital areas.
  • Sharing sex toys.

You do not need to have penetrative sex to get HPV.

HPV is easy to catch and is very common.  Most people will get HPV at some point during their life.

HPV infections are often symptomless, and most people won’t realise they have it.   

For some people, HPV can cause genital warts.

HPV can also cause cancer.  The virus is now responsible for 5% of all cancers and is one of the leading causes of mouth cancer.

Other cancers that are linked to HPV include cervical cancer, anal cancer, genital cancers, and cancers of the head and neck.

Having HPV does not mean you will automatically get cancer or genital warts.  Most people with HPV are unaffected.  But HPV can persist in some people and cause problems, sometimes years later.

Barrier contraception, such as condoms and dental dams, could offer some protection against HPV.  However, because they do not cover all the skin around your genitals, you are not fully protected.

HPV vaccination is the most effective way to protect yourself against HPV and the diseases it can cause.

HPV vaccination programme

Because HPV is spread by sexual contact, it is important that the vaccine is given before sexual activity happens.

In the UK, all children aged 12-to-13 years (born after 1 September 2006) are offered the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine as part of the NHS vaccination programme.

The HPV vaccine helps protect against cancers caused by HPV, including:

  • Some mouth and throat (head and neck) cancers.
  • Cervical cancer.
  • Some cancers of the anal and genital areas.

The vaccine also protects against genital warts.

The UK's HPV vaccination programme offers two doses.  The first dose takes place when a child is in Year 8.  The second dose is offered 6-to-24 months after the first dose.

It is important to have both doses of the vaccine to be properly protected.

In England, if you’re eligible and miss the HPV vaccine offered in Year 8 at school, it’s available for free on the NHS up until your 25th birthday for:

  • Girls born after 1 September 1991.
  • Boys born after 1 September 2006.
  • Men who have sex with men (MSM), trans men and trans women and MSM who are HIV positive are eligible for the vaccine if they are 45 years old or younger.

If you are unsure if you've missed your vaccination, you can ask your GP to check your vaccination record.

More information 

Date last updated: 29 November 2022