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 dormant. 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 usually 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?
- HPV vaccination is the best way to prevent HPV. Research shows that getting the HPV vaccine in early adolescence dramatically reduces the risk of getting cervical cancer as an adult. The HPV vaccine is recommended at ages 9-12. If someone missed getting vaccinated by age 12, catch-up vaccination is recommended for ages 13-26. People can still get the HPV vaccine at ages 27-45, but it doesn’t work as well because most people have already been exposed to HPV.
- If you do 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.
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. When you are tested, make sure your medical provider knows if you have any of these conditions because you may need to be screened more often:
- Smoking doesn’t increase your risk of getting HPV, but it makes HPV more dangerous for you. The chemicals in smoke harm your infection-fighting cells so they can’t control the HPV infection. 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.
- Diagnosis of cervical precancer in the past. If you were told that you had “dysplasia” or “CIN” and had a cone or LEEP procedure to remove the abnormal cells, your risk of cervical cancer is elevated for at least 25 years.
- Abnormal HPV or Pap test results in the past 10 years. If you had an abnormal HPV or Pap test result recently, you may need more frequent screening. To learn more about your personal situation, go to https://cervicalrisk.com/
- 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 for cervical cancer and other cancers of the vagina and reproductive tract.
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!