As doctors call it the 'summer of STI's'.
New stats this week from LloydsPharmacy online doctor reveal an 189% spike in searches for the STI HPV. Yes, lockdown may have seen a spike in searches for the best sex toys, but as IRL intimacy and non-Zoom dating (gasp) make their way back into our lives, STI’s were bound to make a comeback, too. So, if you’re wondering what HPV is – or what the main HPV symptoms are in women – you’re in the right place.
Much like the spike in search for the morning after pill when restrictions first eased, people are currently having way more sex, now they’re legally allowed too. In some unfortunate cases, this can lead to STI’s, like HPV – some experts are even going as far as to call it the ‘summer of STI’s’.
Top line: HPV, otherwise known as human papillomavirus, is a fairly common sexually transmitted infection. It’s spread through skin-to-skin contact, and is often symptomless, making it hard to notice.
While often HPV symptoms in women aren’t noticeable, in some cases, it can lead to warts and even certain cancers, so it’s definitely worth reading up on and treating, if you do end up with it.
If you do get it – don’t stress. It’s actually very common, according to doctor Sameer Sanghvi, clinical technology lead at LloydsPharmacy online doctor.
“Lots of us will get it at some point in our lives,” he explains. “HPV is transmitted through vaginal, oral or anal sex, but it can also be spread by skin-to-skin contact with the genitals or sharing sex toys.”
Keep reading for an expert breakdown of your most Googled questions on the matter.
HPV symptoms in women can be subtle: your need-to-knows
Is HPV an STI?
Short answer, yes. Data indicates there is a lot of confusion over whether HPV is an STI or not, with searches up 230% last month, but as doctor Gigi Taguri confirms: ‘‘HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), as it is passed through skin-to-skin contact with the genital area, vaginal, anal, and/or oral sex, or sharing sex toys.”
FYI, because the virus often stays in the skin, even once you treat the warts, they can come back, she explains.
Plus, it’s worth noting here that HPV can lay dormant for years – it doesn’t always come from recent sexual intercourse
So, what are the symptoms of HPV in women?
As we’ve touched on, HPV can be sneaky as it’s usually symptomless. “Most people won’t even know they have it and their bodies will fight it off on their own,” shares the doctor.
For some women, HPV might cause:
- Genital warts
- Small, flesh-coloured bumps on the vulva
- Small, flesh-coloured bumps on the walls of the vagina
- Small, flesh-coloured bumps around the anus.
What is a HPV test?
So, how do you know if you have HPV – and whether or not you need to treat it? Good question.
The simplest way is to get a HPV test at your GP or local clinic, but rest assured, you’re tested for it when you get your smear check up, too.
‘‘When you have your smear, a small sample of cells will also be taken from your cervix and tested for HPV,” explains Taguri. “This is because HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer, and catching HPV early can prevent cancerous cells developing in the future,” she goes on.
Is HPV curable?
Sadly, not at the moment. But rest assured – most people who have the virus won’t even know they have it and it will clear up on its own, shares Taguri.
What is a HPV vaccine?
What it says on the tin – a vaccine that protects you against certain high-risk types of HPV.
As part of the National Immunisation Programme, it’s given to boys and girls in Year 8, women up to 25 who missed the vaccine in school and men up to 45 who have sex with men.
Note here: if you don’t qualify for the free vaccine, anyone over the age of 18 can request the vaccine privately through LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor. LloydsPharmacy also has a HPV vaccination service for those aged 12 to 45.
What does it mean to be HPV positive?
Clue really is in the name with this one – that you have tested positive for the HPV virus.
Sure, it’s daunting, but know that doctors are there to guide you through the treatment process. Taguri explains: “If you’re HPV positive, doctors will then look at whether the lab found any abnormal cells or not.”
If they did, you’ll be asked to have a colposcopy, a ‘simple procedure which will look at your cervix,’ the doctor explains.
If they didn’t find abnormal cells, you’ll be invited for another cervical screening in a year’s time to check in on the situation.
“If you still have HPV then, you’ll be invited again in a year and, if after three years you still have HPV, you’ll be invited for a colposcopy,” she goes on.
Is HPV the same as Herpes?
No – they’re two totally different viruses, according to the doctor, despite them commonly getting mixed up.
“Cold sores are caused by a group of viruses called herpes simplex virus – HSV or herpes for short). HPV is a different virus altogether,” she shares.
What happens if you don’t treat HPV?
It depends on how severe your case of HPV is, but don’t worry – if it does get as bad as genital warts, it is all treatable.
“If you notice genital warts, do go to your GP or local sexual health clinic,” advises Taguri. “You might be prescribed a cream to treat the warts or, in some cases, the warts might be burnt, frozen or cut off by a clinician,” she explains.
While the warts might be a bit uncomfortable, they can’t do much damage – you just run the risk of passing them on, if left untreated, which isn’t advised.
5 top tips for dealing with an STI like HPV
Don’t worry – as long as you’re having your regular smear tests, your doctor will be monitoring if you have HPV or not, so it’s nothing to worry about.
But if you do find out you have it, don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s what doctors are there for, after all.
1. Use condoms
To make sure you don’t catch it initially or pass it on. Our round up of the best condoms might help.
2. Wash any sex toys after each use
Again, to reduce the risk of catching it or passing it on. Again, our handy expert-led guide to how to clean your sex toys can guide you here.
3. Get your HPV vaccine
A simple but effective way of protecting yourself, according to the doctor.
4. Attend your smear tests whenever you’re invited
Wondering what happens in a smear test or worried it’ll be uncomfortable? Read our first person account and you’ll be reassured in no-time.
5. Get clued up on the HPV symptoms in women
We reckon this article was a good place to start. Remember: if you’re at all worried, do book a GP appointment. They’ll be able to guide you in the right direction.