HPV and Cervical Cancer

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What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papilloma virus. There are over 100 types of HPV. Some types produce warts on the hand, and some infect the genital area. Most seem to have no harmful effect.

How common is genital HPV?

Genital HPV infections are so common among people who have sex that one could say they are almost a routine aspect of being sexually active. An estimated 70 to 80 percent of sexually active Canadians carry the virus at some time in their life. Most people don't know they have HPV because there are usually no symptoms.

How do people get genital HPV?

HPV viruses are microscopic and pass through tiny breaks in the skin. If you are sexually active, you are exposed to genital HPV through vaginal, anal, or oral sex play. HPV can be transferred from the vagina to the anal area. Vaginal intercourse is not necessary to contact HPV. Women who have sex with women get HPV. As well, people who have had only one sexual partner can get it.

Why should I be concerned about HPV?

Some types of HPV can cause genital warts. Other types may cause changes in cells. These types are linked with cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, and anus. Almost 100% of cervical cancers have these types of HPV present.

It is important to note that the body's immune system usually gets rid of HPV on its own within a year or two. Most women with HPV will not develop cervical cancer.

What is the treatment for HPV infection?

Most types of HPV are harmless and do not require treatment. Like many viruses, there is no cure for HPV however treatments can help the symptoms. For example, genital warts can be treated with medications applied directly to warts.

Does HPV cause cancer?

HPV is necessary for the development of cervical changes, but it does not cause cancer by itself. No one knows for sure what else is needed for cancer to develop. Some factors might be:

  • unprotected sex at a young age;
  • smoking;
  • lowered immune system;
  • poor nutrition and a diet low in vitamins A, folate (a B vitamin) and C;
  • stress;
  • not using condoms or other barrier methods of birth control; and
  • having another sexually transmitted infection like chlamydia.

We do know that poverty is linked to deaths from cervical cancer. Poor nutrition, stress and smoking are all linked with poverty.

How do I know if I have HPV?

Most women only become aware of the fact that they have HPV when they have genital warts or abnormal Pap test results. HPV can also be detected by a test that analyzes DNA from the body's cells. This test called Hybrid Capture II (HCII) detects the specific types of HPV that have been linked with cervical cancer.

What if I have an abnormal Pap test?

Mildly abnormal Pap test results are thought to be worrisome only if HPV is detected. Sometimes the Pap test detects the presence of HPV and this will be mentioned in the written report. Usually a separate HPV test (HCII) is needed. You should be aware that this test is new in Canada and is not available everywhere.

HPV testing cannot predict which abnormalities will go on to become cervical cancer. Abnormalities that persist over time are cause for concern. As mentioned above, the body's immune system usually gets rid of HPV on its own within a year or two.

If you have moderate or severe results, then you will be watched or sent for colposcopy. The majority of these results usually mean that HPV is present. (See Abnormal Pap Test FAQ)

Do I need to worry what people think about my lifestyle if I have a sexually transmitted infection?

Many messages about HPV warn against having more than one sexual partner. They mention "multiple partners" as a "risk factor" for HPV and cervical cancer.

It only takes one sexual encounter to become infected with HPV. An abnormal Pap test result could be the outcome of unprotected sexual activity from many years ago. Some researchers think that unprotected early first intercourse is a more important risk than how many partners you have had. No one knows for sure. What is important is that you seek treatment and not worry what people will think.

Where can I go for more information?