Cervical cancer is caused by a virus called HPV. The full name of the virus is human papillomavirus. (“Papilloma” is pronounced “pap-ah-LO-mah.”) But from now on we’ll simply call it HPV.
There are over a hundred types of viruses called HPV – it’s a very common virus.
Most HPV types can cause warts – usually in the genital area, sometimes in the mouth or throat. Though wart-causing HPV types aren’t exactly welcome guests, they do not lead to cancer.
However, some HPV types on your cervix can lead to cervical cancer. These types of HPV are called high-risk HPV. Going forward, when we use the term HPV, unless we say otherwise we’re talking about high-risk HPV. Two HPV types in particular are the worst. These two – HPV types 16 and 18 – are responsible for about 70% of all cervical cancers.
High-risk HPV itself is not cancer. And, having high-risk HPV doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer.
In fact, as women, 8 out of 10 of us carry high-risk HPV at some time in our lives. Nothing bad happens – it just quietly goes away. To say this another way: While most women have HPV at some point in their lives, few women will get cervical cancer.
But sometimes high-risk HPV sticks around. For years. The medical term is persistent HPV infection.
And persistent high-risk HPV infection can lead to trouble. The virus can start causing changes in healthy cells. The cells become abnormal cells that can eventually lead to cancer. It takes about 10-15 years for cervical cells to change to abnormal cells and then into cervical cancer.
And persistent high-risk HPV infection can lead to trouble.
The virus can start causing changes in healthy cells. The cells become abnormal cells that can eventually lead to cancer. It takes about 10-15 years for cervical cells to change to abnormal cells and then into cervical cancer.
Frequently Asked Questions About HPV
How does someone get HPV?
Most people get HPV through vaginal or anal intercourse.
HPV can also be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact in the genital area (the area around the vagina and penis).
How can I avoid getting HPV?
- The best way to avoid HPV is not to have sex or sexual contact.
- If you choose to have sex, have your partner use condoms. Condoms can help protect against HPV. But since you can get HPV from skin-to-skin contact in the genital area, even people who use condoms can get HPV.
- Agree with your partner to only have sex or sexual contact with each other. But remember, even if you both swear total fidelity, you still have to be tested, like everyone else.
- If you are 26 or younger, you can get an HPV vaccine. It’s approved for girls and young women ages 9 through 26, but is recommended specifically for girls ages 11 and 12. The vaccine helps protect against the two types of HPV that cause approximately 70% of all cervical cancers.
Does anything make HPV more dangerous to me?
Yes. If any of these factors are in your life, you and your healthcare provider must pay special attention.
- Smoking. Yet another reason to stop now! See quitsmoking.about.com
- A compromised immune system. Many diseases can compromise the immune system – making it difficult to fight off infection such as HPV. These diseases include lupus and HIV/AIDS. When you are tested, make sure your medical provider knows if you have a compromised immune system.
- An infection with chlamydia or herpes simplex virus type 2.
- Multiple pregnancies. The more babies a woman has given birth to, the greater her risk of cervical cancer. Researchers suggest that this could be a result of hormonal changes during pregnancy or changes in the immune system during pregnancy.
- A first-degree relative (mother or sister) with a history of cervical cancer. Research reports that this increases personal risk three-fold.
- Low levels of folic acid (a type of Vitamin B). Ask your health care provider if you need to be tested for this, and how you can increase your intake of this vitamin.
- Possibly, the use of oral contraceptives for over 10 years. The jury is still out.
- Exposure while in the womb to a medication called DES, which was prescribed to many women to prevent miscarriage between 1938 and 1971. The daughters of women given low-dose DES are at risk.
What are the symptoms of HPV infection?
The high-risk HPV types that can cause cervical cancer don’t cause any symptoms. No warts. No blisters. Nothing. The only sure way to know if you have HPV is to get tested!