HPV and Cervical Cancer
How HPV Is Spread
HPV types associated with genital infections are transmitted sexually, primarily through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. HPV can also be spread through oral sex. The chance of getting HPV rises with certain risk factors:
- Number of lifetime sexual partners (risk increases with more partners)
- Young age: Women aged 20 to 24 are most likely to be infected, but they usually clear the HPV infection with no problems.
- Women who are sexually active with men who have other partners at the same time.
Symptoms of High-Risk HPV Infection and Tests
When infection with high-risk HPV types occurs, there are usually no symptoms. Often, the first clue is a Pap test result that is abnormal. In a Pap test, the doctor takes a swab of cervical cells and has them analyzed in a laboratory. If the Pap test results are atypical, the doctor may order a HPV test to check the DNA type of the virus. This analysis can identify 13 or 14 of the high-risk HPV types associated with cervical cancer. It does not identify cancer. But it tells the woman and her doctor if she has a type of HPV capable of causing cancer.
Treatment of HPV Infection
A positive HPV test may not mean a woman needs treatment, at least not immediately. Having a positive test puts a woman in the "high-risk" class, alerting the doctor that she is at higher risk for cervical tissue changes and may need close evaluation.
To watch for further tissue changes, the doctor may order frequent Pap tests if the initial test is normal. Or the doctor may perform a colposcopy, in which a lighted magnifying device is used to closely examine cervical tissues. This should also be done if the Pap is abnormal and patient has high risk HPV.
Researchers have discovered that high-risk HPV viruses produce certain proteins. These proteins interfere with the cell functions that limit excessive cell growth.
If abnormal cervical tissue changes progress, treatment may be needed. Among the options are surgery, laser treatment, and freezing.
Pregnant women, or women considering pregnancy, should consult closely with their doctor. The risk of passing HPV on to the baby is very low. But HPV treatments can affect pregnancy, so doctors may want to delay treatment until after childbirth.