Monday, April 20, 2009

The Basics: Is There A Link Between Cervical Cancer and HPV?

Has your doctor told you that your abnormal Pap 

smear result may be due to an infection with HPV? 

Are you wondering what it is, how you got it and what 

can be done about it? 

Here's facts from an Australian report showing the link 

between cervical cancer and HPV (Human Papilloma 


Key facts

HPV is a virus (Human Papilloma Virus). 

Almost all abnormal Pap smear results are caused 

by HPV. 

Anyone who has ever had sex can have HPV - it’s so 

common that four out of five people will have had HPV 

at sometime in their lives. 

In most cases, it clears up by itself in one to two years. 

In rare cases, if the virus persists and is left 

undetected, it can lead to cervical cancer. This usually 

takes about 10 years. 

A Pap smear every two years can detect any abnormal 

cell changes caused by HPV, which can then be monitored 

and/or treated to prevent cancer. 

What is HPV?

Viruses are microscopic organisms that can live in the 
cells of our bodies and may cause disease. Symptoms 
vary depending on the type of virus. There are over 
100 types of HPV that affect different parts of the body. 
We will discuss the types of HPV that affect the genital 
area, as these may show up on your Pap smear. Some 
types of HPV cause warts, but most HPV infection is 
invisible. You might only find out about it when you 
have a Pap smear. Anyone who has ever had sex can 
have been in contact with HPV. It is so common that 
four out of five people have HPV at some time in their 

How do I know if I have HPV? 

• Most people will have HPV at sometime and never 
know it. 
• The body’s immune system usually clears the virus 
in around one to two years. 
• A Pap smear is a quick and simple test in which a 
number of cells are collected from your cervix and sent 
to a laboratory where they are tested for changes. 
• No drugs or an aesthetics are required and a doctor 
can easily do it. It only takes a few minutes. 
• A Pap smear every two years is your best protection 
against cervical cancer. 
• Cell changes found by having a Pap smear are nearly 
always caused by HPV, and usually return to normal 
when the body has cleared the virus. If the changes 
continue, they can be treated before they become 
more serious. Most people will have HPV at some 
time and never know it. The body’s immune system 
usually clears the virus in around one to two years. 
A Pap smear is a quick and simple test in which a number 
of cells are collected from your cervix and sent to
laboratory where they are tested for changes.  No drugs 
or anaesthetics are required and a doctor can easily do it.  
It only takes a few minutes.  
• A Pap smear every two years is your best protection 
against cervical cancer. 
• Cell changes found by having a Pap smear are nearly 
always caused by HPV, and usually return to normal when 
the body has cleared the virus. If the changes continue, 
they can be treated before they become more serious.

How did I get HPV? 
HPV is spread through genital skin contact during sex.  
The virus passes through tiny breaks in the skin. HPV 
is not spread through blood or other body fluid. Condoms 
offer limited protection as they do not cover all of the 
genital skin. Warts on any other parts of the body rarely 
spread to the genital area. 

What does it mean if I have HPV? 

HPV is so common that it can be considered a normal 
part of life after you start to have sex. Four out of five 
people will have HPV at some time in their lives. Most 
women only become aware of the fact that they have 
HPV when they have an abnormal Pap smear result or 
if genital warts appear.

After it enters the body, HPV behaves in one of two 
• it can stay dormant (inside the body’s cells); or 
it can become active.  

When they are active, some types of HPV can cause warts.  
Other types cause invisible infection in the genital area, 
including the cervix. It can take many years for the virus 
to become active, and when it does it usually only lasts 
for a short time. In most cases, the infection is cleared 
by the body is one to two years.  Once you have been 
exposed to a particular kind of HPV, you are unlikely to 
catch it again

How is HPV related to cancer of the cervix? 

HPV infection is very common but in most people the 

virus clears up naturally in one to two years.  In a small 

number of women, HPV stays in the cells of the cervix.  

If the infection is not cleared, there is an increased risk 

of cervical cancer. When cervical cancer develops, 

HPV is found in almost all cases. Although HPV can cause 

cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer, this will 

usually take a long time - often more than 10 years. 

A number of factors such as increasing age, smoking 

and lowered immunity, together with the long term cell 

changes caused by HPV, may increase the risk 

of cervical cancer.  It is important to have a Pap smear 

every two years so that cell changes can be identified 

and either watched until they clear up or be treated 

when necessary.  It is important to remember that most 

women who have HPV clear the virus 

naturally and do NOT go on to develop cervical cancer.

What should I tell my partner? 

As HPV is so common, there is a strong chance that 

anyone who has ever had sex has HPV, or has had it 

in the past. You can have HPV for a long time with out 

knowing it. It is possible you were infected recently, 

or many months or years ago and the virus has stayed 

undetected or dormant.  People who discover they have 

HPV may feel shocked, angry or upset. Because the 

virus can be hidden in a person’s cells for a long time, 

having a diagnosis of HPV does not necessarily mean 

that you or your partner has been unfaithful. As we do 

not know how long HPV can remain dormant, for most 

people it is impossible to determine when and from 

whom they got HPV. If you have HPV, it is quite likely 

that your partner has it, too. If you have genital warts, 

your partner may have them or may develop them. 

It is also possible that neither of you will have any 

symptoms at all. Remember, most people will clear 

the virus from their body in about one or two years 

without any harmful effects. If you or your partner are 

concerned about HPV, talk to your doctor or go to a 

sexual health centre for further advice. HPV and herpes 

are not related. If you have HPV, it does not mean you 

will have herpes.

How is HPV treated?
There is no treatment for HPV. It will, in most 
cases, be cleared up by your immune system 
like most viruses.  However, the effects of the 
virus, such as any warts that appear or changes to 
the cells of the cervix, can be treated. Your doctor 
can suggest the treatment most suitable for you. 
If your Pap smear indicates that cells have been 
affected by HPV, you should have more frequent 
Pap smears until these cells return to normal. If 
the changes continue, further tests may be necessary. 

Can I be tested for HPV? 

There is a test available that can identify certain types 
of HPV associated with cervical cancer. This test is not 
helpful for women under the age of 30, as HPV is very 
common in this age group and usually goes away without 
causing any problems. Also, because there is no cure for 
HPV, there is little reason to have the test. The HPV test 
is most useful for women who have had treatment for 
cell changes to check that the virus has gone away.  
If you have had treatment for a high grade abnormality, 
you will need to have a Pap smear and a HPV test annually. 
Once both the Pap smear and HPV test are reported as 
negative on two successive occasions, you can then return 
to the two-yearly screening program. 

HPV Vaccine 

Regular Pap smears are still essential as the HPV vaccine 
does not protect against all the HPV types that can 
cause cervical cancer.


While HPV is very common, cervical cancer is not 


• Most women with HPV will not develop cervical 


• It usually takes around 10 years for changes to 


cells caused by HPV to progress to cancer. Regular Pap 

smears are your best protection against developing cervical 


See your health practitioner if you ever develop any 
symptoms such as unusual bleeding, even if your last Pap 
smear was normal. 

Will more frequent Pap smears offer more protection 
against cervical cancer?
If your latest Pap smear result was normal and you have no 
symptoms or concerns, then your next Pap smear is due in 
two years time. There is no need to have another Pap smear
any earlier. If you have any symptoms such as bleeding, 
discharge or any other worries, you should go back to your 
doctor and discuss them. Cervical cancer usually takes 
around 10 years to develop. A Pap smear once every two 
years is enough to identify changes before they become 


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