HPV and Cervical Cancer: What's the Link?

Many things have been linked to cancer, from genetics to tobacco use. But we know for sure that most cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted disease called human papilloma virus, or HPV.

That also means we can prevent most cases of cervical cancer. How? By preventing HPV through vaccinations and practicing safe sex.

What Is HPV?

HPV is the most common type of sexually transmitted disease, or STD. It's not one, but a group of more than 200 closely related viruses.

Sexually transmitted HPV comes in two different types:

  • Low-risk HPV types cause genital warts -- bumps on the penis or vagina
  • High-risk HPV types cause cancers in both men and women

HPV has been linked to cancers of the:

How Do You Get HPV?

You can catch HPV through oral, vaginal, and anal sex. The virus is so common that most men and women who are sexually active will have HPV at some point. You can pass HPV to your partner even if you don't know you're infected.

You can't catch HPV from a toilet set or swimming pool. It also doesn't pass from person to person through casual contact, like shaking hands.

How Does HPV Cause Cervical Cancer?

Most of the time HPV infections go away on their own in 1 to 2 years. Yet some people stay infected for many years.

If you don't treat an HPV infection, it can cause cells inside your cervix to turn into cancer. It can often take between 10 and 30 years from the time you’re infected until a tumor forms.

Can You Prevent HPV?

One way to avoid HPV and cervical cancer is to get vaccinated. Two HPV vaccines are currently available:

Gardasil. This HPV vaccine is recommended for girls and boys age 11 or 12, but can be given as early as 9. It’s recommended for females up to age 26, and men up to age 21, and may be given to men up to age 26. Talk to your doctor about your specific case. It’s also given in 3 doses.

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Gardasil-9. This vaccine is for boys and girls and routinely given at 11 or 12, but it can be given beginning at age 9 and through age 26.

The key for all three vaccines is to get them before having sex for the first time -- and before being exposed to HPV. You need to get all three doses of the HPV vaccine for it to work.

Practicing safe sex is another way to avoid getting HPV. Use a latex condom every time you have sex. Condoms don't protect against HPV 100% of the time, but they can help.

Does HPV Have Symptoms?

Often HPV causes no symptoms. Some types of HPV can cause genital warts. Warts are single bumps, or clusters of bumps that look sort of like cauliflower.

Genital warts can form around the:

  • Vagina, vulva, groin, anus, mouth, or throat in women
  • Penis, scrotum, thigh, groin, anus, mouth, or throat in men

HPV can also cause cervical cancer. Symptoms of cervical cancer include:

Cervical cancer often doesn't cause symptoms until it has already spread. That's why it's important to get screened with a Pap test.

Why Get a Pap Test?

A Pap test is one way to screen for cervical cancer. It can find this cancer early, when it's easiest to treat.

During a Pap test, the doctor takes a sample of cells from your cervix. That sample goes to a lab. It's tested to see if any of the cells have started to turn into cancer. Your doctor can also test the cells for HPV.

Women should get screened:

  • With a Pap test once every 3 years from age 21 to 65, or
  • With a Pap test and an HPV test once every 5 years from age 30 to 65

Ask your doctor or gynecologist about your HPV and cervical cancer risks. Find out if you need to get vaccinated. And learn what other steps you can take to avoid cervical cancer.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on March 29, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology: "Genital Warts: Signs and Symptoms."

American Cancer Society: "HPV and Cancer," "Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer."

CDC: "Genital HPV Infection -- Fact Sheet," "Questions and Answers About HPV."

Cleveland Clinic: "HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment."

National Cancer Institute: "HPV and Cancer."

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force: "Cervical Cancer: Screening."

Vaccines.gov: "HPV (Human Papillomavirus) Vaccine."

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