Understanding HPV and Cervical Cancer

What Is HPV?

Human papilloma virus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 150 virus strains can be categorized as HPV. Around 40 of those strains can infect the genital area and are transmitted through direct sexual activity or intimate skin-to-skin contact. While most forms aren’t life-threatening, there are around 12 high-risk strains that can increase your risk for cancer. In fact, HPV is responsible for virtually all cases of cervical cancer.

Not everyone who contracts HPV will develop cancerous cells, since the body is adept at fighting off infection on its own. However, in a small proportion of women, a high-risk HPV infection can lead to a persistent infection in the cells of the cervix. If this viral infection lasts for years, it can turn normal cervical cells into cancerous cells.

The Importance of Vaccination

Three HPV vaccines are licensed for use in the United States: Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix. These vaccines offer protection from HPV types 16 and 18, which are responsible for the largest portion of cervical cancers.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends routine vaccination against HPV at age 11 or 12, though the vaccination is approved for females as young as 9 up to age 26. Girls who begin the series between the ages of 9 and 14 receive a two-dose schedule, and those who begin the series between the ages of 15 and 26 – and anyone who is immunocompromised – receive a three-dose schedule.

The Importance of Routine Screenings

According to the CDC, there are two types of screenings that can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early: pap testing and HPV testing.

Pap Test
During your pap test, your doctor will collect cells from your cervix and run tests to see if there are any abnormalities. Be sure to keep up with your annual gynecological visits to confirm you are being screened at the appropriate intervals for your risk levels.

HPV Test
HPV testing, which can be done at the same time as your pap test, looks for high-risk HPV infections in the cells of your cervix. Current guidelines recommend that women between the ages of 30 and 65 have both a pap test and an HPV test every five years.