HPV and cervical cancer: What you need to know

A 3D rendering of human papillomavirus

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., and there are more than 200 strains of it.

Forty of those are known as high-risk HPV, which can lead to cervical cancer in women. Low-risk HPV usually causes symptoms that are not life threatening, such as genital warts.

It’s important to know that high-risk HPV by itself is not cancer. Eight out of 10 women will have high-risk HPV at some point in their lives, but few of them will get cervical cancer.

Luckily, there is a vaccine that protects people against some high-risk strains of HPV.

How do you get HPV?

You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV, even if you have had sex with only one person. HPV can be passed on even if the infected person has no symptoms.

Who can get HPV?

Both men and women can get HPV. It’s important to know that women can be tested for HPV, but men can’t. However, men can get the HPV vaccine, which helps prevent them from getting genital warts and some types of cancer, including penile, anal, and throat cancer. The vaccine also helps protect their partners.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend routine testing for men for these cancers because they’re much less common. However, if you think you may have HPV or cancer, contact your health care provider.

What are the symptoms of HPV and cervical cancer?

Genital warts can be a sign of HPV in men and women. However, many strains of HPV, especially those that cause cancer, have no noticeable symptoms. These strains can be detected only by a Pap smear, which tests a woman’s cervix, the lower part of her uterus, for any cell changes.

Symptoms of cervical cancer in women can appear years after an HPV infection. They include:

  • Bleeding and spotting between menstrual periods
  • Bleeding after vaginal sex
  • Bleeding after menopause
  • Heavier than usual menstrual periods
  • Bleeding after a pelvic exam
  • Unusual discharge from the vagina
  • Pain during sex

How are HPV and cervical cancer treated?

Both men and women can get HPV, but men can’t be tested for it.

There is no cure or treatment for HPV, but there are treatments for the complications it can cause, such as genital warts, cancer-causing cells, and cervical cancer.

Treatment for cervical cancer is based on how advanced the cancer is, but it can include chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Getting regular Pap smears and HPV testing helps your doctor know whether you have HPV and, if you do, monitor it. Early detection often prevents cervical cancer. Make sure to ask your health care provider about the best screening schedule for you.

Who should get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine is an important tool for preventing HPV and its complications, and it is especially effective when received at a young age.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends that most children get vaccinated for HPV at age 11 or 12. The dosage schedule depends on how old the child is when he or she is first vaccinated, but children usually get two doses.

Vaccination is not generally recommended for people older than 26. However, some adults ages 27 through 45 who are not already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after talking with their health care provider. 

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