It may not seem like it, but “Human Papillomavirus (HPV)” and “Cervical Cancer” are two words that often go together. HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer, but lucky for you this type of cancer is highly preventable in Western countries due to screening tests and vaccines against the virus. Even more good news: if cervical cancer or its precursors are found early, you are likely to recover and live a long and happy life. Many offices like ours offer co-testing, where a pap and screen for HPV are tun at the same time for women between ages 30-65 (routine pap smears begin at age 21, but HPV is only run if pap results for that age group are abnormal).
Now, back to HPV.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus with more than 150 strains, 40 of which infect the genitals of men and women, and 16 of which are considered “high-risk”. HPV is actually so common that the CDC estimates that nearly all sexually active adults (yes males and females) will contract the virus during their lifetime. Another scary fact is that most types of HPV have no symptoms, so even when you are infected, you may not know.
Fortunately, for most, the virus clears on its own in about two years, but some strains are more dangerous and can lead to cellular changes that cause cancers such as cervical, vulvar, penile, anal, and even throat cancer. HPV 16 and 18 are the most dangerous strains of the virus and are responsible for causing 70% of cervical and vaginal cancers. With the advent of HPV vaccines like Gardasil, which protects against nine of the most dangerous strains of HPV including HPV 16 and HPV 18, experts hope to drastically reduce HPV infections and therefore cancer. This is a very important reason why doctors encourage all children to be vaccinated at age 12, before they begin sexual activity to prevent the spread of the most dangerous forms of this virus. Though Gardasil does protect against nine strains of HPV, it is important to understand that it does not protect against all strains of HPV.
As stated above, HPV will often clear on its own, especially in healthy adults; however, when it is not able to clear, your cells may begin to undergo small changes detectable by a yearly pap smear. Women in their teens are early 20s are the most likely to be infected with HPV; however they are also most likely to clear the infection and any cellular changes that occur within two years. For women above 30, the risk of persistent HPV infection and cervical cellular changes increases.
Stages of cellular changes:
Pap Smear (Cell Cytology)
- ASCUS - H
- Cervical Cancer
Cervical Biopsy (Colposcopy)
- CIN I (Mild Dysplasia)
- CIN II (Moderate Dysplasia)
- CIN II (Severe Dysplasia)
- Cervical Cancer
ASCUS (Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance), ASCUS-H (Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance, high), LISL (Low-Grade Squamous Intraepithelial Lesion), HSIL (High-Grade Squamous Intraepithelial Lesions), CIN (Cervical Intraepithelial Lesion)
The closer you are to the top of this list, the more likely you are to clear yourself of the HPV infection; however, without healthy habits, your chances of getting rid of the virus decrease.