What is HPV?
HPV can be spread from person to person. One of the most common ways in which it is spread is through sex; vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an infected partner can result in infection. Research shows that as many as three out of every four people who have sex will get a genital HPV infection at some time in their lives.
HPV infection is asymptomatic which means that an infected person will have no signs of infection although some HPV types do cause genital warts. Genital warts usually appear on the skin of the genitals and surrounding areas and are usually treated with topical creams or removed using lasers.
What is the link between HPV and cancer?
The HPV infection has been linked to cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, anus and penis. Genital warts, however, are not linked to cancer.
For women, cervical cancer remains the main concern. It is important to understand that cervical cancer usually takes a long time to develop. This process starts when HPV infected cells in the lining of the cervix start to become abnormal. Over time, these abnormal changes become severe enough to be classified as "pre-cancerous lesions" or "dysplasias". If left untreated, these lesions may eventually turn into cancer of the cervix. It is equally important to understand that most HPV infections are cleared by a healthy immune system and even a good proportion of dysplasias will go away without treatment. Consequently, the only way to be sure that your cervix is healthy is through regular Pap smear screenings.
What tests should I be doing regularly to prevent cervical cancer?
The most commonly used test is called a Pap Smear or a Pap test. Your healthcare provider will be able to perform this simple test for you. It involves collecting a sample of the cells that have been naturally shed from the cervix, and examining them under a microscope in the laboratory.
If you are have ever had sex, are currently sexually active or are 21 years of age or older, most experts recommend yearly Pap smears till age 30.
If you are a woman 30 years of age or older and have had three or more normal Pap tests in a row, you may safely opt to have a Pap test every two to three years.
You may have heard about HPV DNA tests. Commercially available tests usually tell you whether you have been infected with high-risk HPV types. High-risk HPV types are those HPV types that are more closely linked to cervical cancer. If you are a woman of 30 or older and opt to have this test at the same time as your Pap test and have negative results for both tests, you may safely have you next HPV or Pap test in 3 years.
What should I do if my Pap test is abnormal?
Most abnormal Pap smear tests are actually the result of mildly abnormal changes in the lining of the cervix or vagina. Your healthcare provider will recommend follow-up in the form of a repeat Pap smear or Colposcopy.
Can the HPV infection be prevented?
There is no cure for HPV, but it can certainly be prevented.
If you are a young woman who has not yet had sex, you are a good candidate for HPV vaccination. Your healthcare provider can tell you if HPV vaccination is right for you.
If you have ever had sex or are already sexually active, you can reduce your risk of infection by limiting the number of sexual partners and using condoms with every sexual encounter. You may still benefit from HPV vaccination and should ask your healthcare provider about this.
HPV infection is very common.
Only a small proportion of HPV infections lead to pre-cancerous changes of the cervix.
The most reliable way to prevent cervical cancer is by:
Getting vaccinated against HPV.
Getting regular Pap smears.
Limiting the number of sexual partners and using condoms.