Frequently asked questions about HPV

HPV stands for human papillomavirus, which is a group of very common viruses. There are more than 180 types of HPV and different types can cause different diseases. Approximately 50 types of the HPV virus can infect the anogenital tract of humans. The anogenital tract includes in and around the anus, plus the vulva, vagina and cervix in females, and the scrotum and penis in males.

Spread through skin-to-skin contact, HPV is highly contagious. Around 80% of sexually active people will have been exposed to the virus at some point in their lifetime and for most people the virus goes away naturally. Others can remain infected with the virus for a long time without developing a disease.

Unfortunately, as there are often no symptoms, people may not even know that they have the infection. Using a condom during sex can reduce the risk of infection, but they don't prevent it entirely. HPV can be present all over the area around your genitals and anus, and is spread through skin-to-skin contact of the genital area - not just penetrative sex.

For most people, HPV goes away naturally, however, if the infection persists, the infected cells may begin to change and could, in time if left untreated, lead to certain HPV-related conditions or cancer. Infection with certain types of HPV (particularly types 16 and 18) could cause vulval, vaginal, anal and especially cervical cancer, amongst others. Infection with types 6 and 11 is linked with developing genital warts.

HPV spreads by skin-to-skin contact. The HPV types that cause cervical and other anogenital cancers and genital warts are mostly spread through sexual contact and anyone, at any age, can become infected.

Unfortunately, there are often no signs or symptoms, so people infected with HPV don't always know. Most of the time the infection goes away naturally, however, in some people the virus can stay active in the body for a long period of time and this is when the problems may arise.

For example, infected cervical cells can begin to change and become pre-cancerous lesions. Known as 'cervical intraepithelial neoplasia' or CIN, in the early stages it's quite possible that the lesions could go back to normal, or, they could continue to grow and develop into cancer. This can happen over a number of years with the resulting cancer continuing to divide, enlarge and invade the surrounding tissues and organs.

Signs and symptoms of these changes are not always obvious early on, and it may not be until the cancer is quite advanced that anything unusual is noticed.

Getting vaccinated against HPV through the national HPV immunisation programme can help to protect against the two most common types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. It also helps to protect against anal cancer, genital warts and pre-cancerous conditions in the cervix, vulva, vagina and anus.

Vaccinating girls in early adolescence - school year 8 (aged 12-13 years) - has been shown to produce a stronger immune response that waiting until they are older. In addition, it makes sense to try to provide girls with protection before they are likely to be exposed to the virus, ie. before they become sexually active.

For more information on the diseases that the vaccine might help to protect your daughter from, and to find out about your daughter's eligibility for the national HPV immunisation programme, contact your school nurse or doctor. Patient information/package leaflets for vaccines may also be useful to help you decide.

In the UK, all girls in year 8 (aged 12-13 years) are offered free HPV vaccination at school through the national HPV programme. Free HPV vaccination is also offered as part of a catch-up programme in schools or GP surgeries to all girls up to their 18th birthday who've not been previously vaccinated against HPV. Girls who start but don't complete their HPV vaccination course before their 18th birthday can complete the course.

If the HPV vaccinations are started in year 8, two doses of the vaccine will be given at least six months apart. For older girls (15 years or older), three doses may be needed. Your daughter will be told how many doses she needs and it's very important that she has them all. Contact your school nurse or doctor if your daughter has started but not completed her HPV vaccination course or you are unsure how many doses she needs. It is important that she has all her doses.

If any vaccinations are missed, for whatever reason, you should speak to your school nurse, practice nurse, or GP about making another appointment as soon as possible to ensure that all doses are received.

Like any injection it may hurt a little, so your daughter should try to stay relaxed, breathe steadily and not look at the needle. Sometimes, people can experience pain, redness and swelling at the site of the injection, or headaches after the injection.

As with any vaccination, people can experience side effects. Sometimes, people can experience pain, redness and swelling at the site of the injection, or headaches after the injection. If your daughter experiences any side effects or feels unwell, please tell your GP, pharmacist or nurse who should report this to MSD on 01992 467272. This includes any possible side effects not listed in the package leaflet.
You can also report side effects directly via the Yellow Card Scheme at or by searching for MHRA Yellow Card in the Google Play or Apple App Store. [By clicking the above link you will leave the MSD website and be taken to the MHRA website.] By reporting side effects, you can help provide more information on the safety of this medicine.

Record the dates on which the vaccinations will be given, read any information given to you and sign the consent form. If your daughter can’t make any of the dates given, it’s very important to let your school nurse, practice nurse or GP know.

Parents, carers or guardians would usually need to give consent for a girl aged 12-13 years to receive the vaccine. School nurses, practice nurses and GPs will always aim to work in partnership with parents, carers or guardians where possible. However, if they are assured that a girl is capable of self-consent then this may be possible. If you can’t come to an agreement, contact your school nurse, practice nurse or GP to help you discuss it further.

If you have any further questions about HPV vaccination, speak to your school nurse, practice nurse or GP.