What is HPV?
HPV is a family of very common viruses that cause almost all cervical cancers, plus a variety of other problems like common warts, genital warts and plantar warts. HPV also causes cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, and cancers of the head and neck. Women and men become infected with HPV types that cause cervical cancer through sexual intercourse and sexual contact. Most women will be exposed to HPV during their lifetime; however the vast majority of people infected with HPV will never get any HPV-associated problems that require medical intervention.
The most common cancer-causing types of the virus are 16 and 18. This is important to know because these two types alone cause about 70% of all cervical cancer. If vaccinated prior to sexual debut, the cervical cancer vaccines protects against these two types nearly 100% of the time.
Women and men become infected with HPV types that cause cervical cancer through sexual intercourse and sexual contact. Most women and men will be exposed to HPV during their lifetime.
An HPV infection rarely leads to cervical cancer. In most women, the cells in the cervix return to normal after the body’s immune system keeps the HPV infection in a dormant and benign state. However, in some women, the HPV infection remains and causes changes in the body’s cells. If these abnormal cells are not found and treated, they may become cancer.
Do condoms prevent the spread of HPV?
Recent studies suggest that regular condom use provides some protection against the HPV infection. However, since condoms do not cover all areas that can be the source of the spread of HPV, they do not offer complete protection. Also, occasional use of condoms was not shown to offer any protection from HPV. To realize protection from HPV infection, you must be committed to using condoms every time you have sex until you are in a committed relationship.
Condoms do reduce the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted disease when used all the time and in the right way.
How do I know if I have HPV?
In most cases, you won’t have any symptoms of an HPV infection. The only way for a woman to know if you have an HPV infection is to have a direct test for the virus which is performed right from the Pap test container or by using an additional swab at the time of the Pap test. The only way to tell if a high-risk HPV infection has caused the cells in your cervix to change is to have a Pap test. Signs of an HPV infection may appear weeks, months or years after the first infection, which is why it is important to have regular tests.
Is there a test for HPV?
Yes, there are HPV tests that can detect high-risk types of HPV that can cause changes in your cervical cells. However, these tests that detect all of the high-risk HPV types cannot tell you the exact type of high-risk HPV. There are tests that your provider might recommend that can determine if you have HPV 16 or 18. This is useful to your provider for some clinical scenarios. Women 30 years of age and older can have both the Pap test and the HPV test for cervical cancer screening. The HPV test can also be used to help understand the meaning of a borderline abnormal Pap test. In that situation, your health care provider may do an HPV test to find out more about the abnormal cells. However, if your Pap test shows a definite pre-cancerous abnormality, an HPV test is not needed. Virtually all of these changes are caused by HPV.
Can HPV be treated?
Currently, there is no treatment for the virus. There are treatments for the cervical changes that HPV can cause. If your Pap and HPV tests show that cells in your cervix have changed, you should discuss treatment options with your doctor.
Young women and men age 9-26 can protect themselves from HPV and cervical changes related to HPV by getting vaccinated against HPV.
What is a Pap test? What’s the difference between a Pap test and an HPV test?
Healthcare providers use the Pap test to see if there are any cell changes in the cervix. The Pap test looks at a sample brushed off your cervix to see if there are any cells that are abnormal. The Pap test is a good way to find cancer cells and cells that might become cancerous in the future. The Pap test can be performed as a normal part of a routine pelvic exam.
An HPV test checks directly for high-risk viruses. Both the Pap and HPV tests use a small, soft brush to collect cervical cells. The cells are sent to a lab where they are examined under a microscope. Whether you have both tests or the Pap test alone, you won’t notice any difference in your exam.