December 5, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

If you don't already know when or how this common STI can cause cancer, these are the most important facts about HPV.

hpv infographic

HPV infographic

HPV is one of the most dangerous sexually transmitted infections for a number of reasons. The Human Papillomavirus is one of the most rampant in young adults, and is the second most common STI in the UK, only outnumbered by chlamydia. In fact, most young adults and teenagers have contracted or will contract HPV at some point in their lives. It is therefore important to note that HPV in itself is not fatal. It is, however, one of the biggest culprits when it comes to creating fertile ground for one of the leading killers in the world; cervical cancer.

HPV will show around the pubic area as a bump and sometimes a ring of sores looking like a cauliflower head. It can be passed from one individual to another through simple contact, making it extremely infectious.

HPV comes with a number of strains, and which strain is caught will very from person to person. Some strains are more potent than others. The HPV 16 and HPV 18 strains are the most dangerous when it comes to creating a ripe breeding ground for cancers. What is alarming to the medical world is that more than two-thirds of the people with cervical cancer have had HPV at some point, with a majority having been exposed specifically to those two strains.

How does HPV cause cancer?

HPV attacks cells around the cervix causing abnormal mutations. These develop into cancerous cells causing cervical cancer. HPV can be detected by screening. The disease will show up through the visibility of abnormal cells. Cancer can, however, be detected through a pap smear. A cancer test will not show HPV. An HPV test will, however, be necessary at this point.

This does not mean that all HPV cases end up in cervical cancer – most, in fact, do not – but there are other STIs which can also cause cancer. One of them is HIV. HIV affects the T-Helper cells slowing the body’s immune system. This exposes the body to attacks from cancer. The immune system works overtime to kill cancerous cells all day, and is one of the leading fronts when it comes to the war against cancer.

The risk of HPV and cervical cancer is also heightened by smoking. Cigarettes come with toxic substances including nicotine and tar-based ingredients that get absorbed into the blood easily. These deposit around mucosal walls including the cervix. This increases the risk of cervical cancer in cases where HPV was present.

How can we avoid HPV?

Vaccines such as Silgard or Gardasil exist to protect young people from HPV and cervical cancer before they become sexually active. The NHS runs programs which distribute this vaccine to girls aged 12-13. Although this is many years before young people usually become sexually active, it is important to ensure that they are protected early on. For this reason, one of the best ways to deal with HPV is by raising public awareness of its risks. Most people that are sexually active do not understand the ramifications that come with contracting the virus. Indeed, most never even know when they have HPV. This is because HPV, depending on the strain, can clear out on its own and by symptomless.

Because the vaccines are available to teens only, adults will have to rely on responsible sexual behaviours to keep HPV at bay – practicing safe sex, as always, is the way to stay healthy.

Maggie Martin is completing her PhD in Cell Biology, works as a lab tech for and contributes content on Bio-tech, Life Sciences, and Viral Outbreaks.

Follow Maggie on Twitter: @MaggieBiosource

Image: Tatiana Shepeleva/Shutterstock