Cervical Cancer

What is HPV? Symptoms, Treatment, & Everything You Need to Know

Key Takeaways:

  • HPV (human papillomavirus) is extremely common; there are specific types of high risk HPV that are associated with cervical cancer.
  • HPV often has no symptoms, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting screened regularly.
  • There are two effective ways to prevent HPV: the HPV vaccine and taking precautions in sexual situations (e.g. using condoms and getting screened for STIs regularly)
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It can be unnerving to receive an HPV diagnosis or an abnormal Pap test result, so first things first—you’ve come to the right place! If you’ve been diagnosed with HPV, you are most certainly not alone. HPV infections are very common; in fact, many will get HPV at some point in their lives. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) and in many cases, often clears up on its own.

Let’s take a closer look at what HPV is, how you can prevent it, and actionable guidance for understanding and navigating this diagnosis.

Table of contents

  • What is HPV?
  • What causes HPV? How can I protect myself against HPV?
  • How is HPV treated?
  • Importance of cervical cancer screening.

What is HPV?

HPV is the human papillomavirus.  This is a group of 200+ related viruses, some of which are spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Sexually transmitted HPV falls into two groups: low-risk and high-risk HPV, and within these groups, there are different strains of HPV. High-risk HPV is routinely screened for as part of your cervical cancer screening (and based on your age/guidelines). There are about 40 types of HPV that are sexually transmitted and can affect your genital area, while other types of HPV can affect other parts of your body, for example, cause plantar warts on your feet.

Low-risk HPV

Most types of low-risk HPV do not cause cancer and tend to resolve on their own. A few types of low-risk HPV (ie. Types 6 and 11), can cause genital warts. While genital warts may not be pleasant, they can be treated.

High-risk HPV (hrHPV)

There are about 14 types of high-risk HPV (hrHPV) that can cause cancer. Types 16 and 18, are associated with most HPV-related cancers. Cervical cancer is most commonly associated with hrHPV, and according to the CDC, about 10 percent of women with an HPV infection can be at risk for developing cervical cancer. High-risk HPV can also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat.

What causes HPV?

HPV is an STI.  It is most commonly transmitted from one person to another through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. It is often asymptomatic, making it very easy for someone to pass it on to someone else without knowing. Therefore, it is so important to make sure you are getting screened when appropriate and medically recommended.

How can I protect myself against HPV?

Practicing safe sex is important to reduce your risk of STIs, however, it doesn’t fully eliminate your risk of HPV because HPV can spread through skin-to-skin contact. It is important to take precautions to reduce your risk of HPV by using condoms, practicing monogamy, and getting regularly tested for STIs (and asking any sexual partners about their test results before having sex).

Fortunately, there is also a vaccine to help protect against HPV.The vaccine is routinely recommended for adolescents starting at ages 11-12 and can be given up until the age of 26.  It is given as a 2 or 3 dose vaccination series depending on the starting age of vaccination.  Some adults, ages 27 to 45, can also receive the vaccination, however this may vary from person to person based on risk, so please talk to your healthcare provider about what is best for you!

How is HPV treated?

If you’ve been diagnosed with HPV, you’re already taking the first  step in doing your research to understand what HPV is and whether you should be concerned. Hopefully, by knowing a bit more about HPV, you’ll feel confident in asking your healthcare provider the right questions.  While there is no treatment for the virus itself, there are treatments for the health conditions it causes (i.e. genital warts).  Together with your healthcare provider, you can discuss a course of action that leaves you feeling more in control of your body and health.

The importance of cervical cancer screening

Screening for cervical cancer is our best tool for early detection and to prevent this disease. When caught early, cervical cancer is curable 92 percent of the time.

There are two types of tests that are used to screen for hrHPV and cervical cancer:

  1. The hrHPV test screens for certain strains of HPV that can be associated with cervical cancer
  2. The Pap test can find changes in the cells of the cervix before cancer develops—and even detect cervical cancer early.

Fortunately, we have easy-to-follow recommended screening schedules you can discuss and implement with your healthcare provider.

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Deepa Thakor
Deepa Thakor
Primary Care Physician

Dr. Thakor, MD, is a board-certified family medicine physician with the American Board of Family Medicine.

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