HPV and cervical cancer

Women's Health Guide: Why is HPV So Serious?

There are more than 100 varieties of the human papillomavirus (HPV). Depending on the strand, HPV can cause warts on many different areas of your body. Some types cause plantar warts on your feet, while others cause the warts that occur on your face or neck. However, more than 40 strands of HPV are responsible for warts that affect the genital area. While most strands don't cause it, there are several that can cause cervical cancer in women.

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by two specific HPV strands. These don’t typically cause genital warts, so it is more difficult to know that you have been infected. Additionally, the early stages of cervical cancer don’t always show signs or symptoms. A Pap test is the only thing that is able to detect precancerous changes in the cervix that may lead to cancer. This is why it is important for all sexually active women to have regular Pap tests performed by their gynecologist. It is recommended that women over the age of 21 have one at least every three years.

Symptoms of HPV

Though warts may not be present with every infection of HPV, they are a common occurrence. When warts do appear, they can vary depending on which strand of HPV is infecting you. For the strains of genital HPV that do cause cervical cancer, the warts can appear as flat lesions, small cauliflower-like bumps, or tiny stem-like protrusions. Genital warts will most likely appear on the vulva, but can also appear on the cervix, in the vagina, or near the anus.

Causes of HPV

You contract HPV primarily via direct skin-to-skin contact. Genital HPV is contracted mostly through sexual intercourse, but it can also be transferred by anal sex and sometimes oral sex.

Risk Factors for HPV

Though anyone can contract HPV, there are certain factors that can put you more at risk for developing the infection. These include:

  • Number of sexual partners: Your risk increases as your number of sexual partners does. Additionally, if your partner has had many sexual partners, this increases your risk as well.
  • Weakened immune system: If you have HIV/AIDS or are taking immunosuppressive medications, this will also put you at a greater risk for developing HPV.
  • Age: Genital HPV is most common among adolescents and young adults.

Prevention of HPV

You can reduce your risk for developing genital HPV by reducing your number of sexual partners, being in a mutually monogamous sexual relationship, and wearing a latex condom during intercourse. Additionally, there is a vaccination called Gardasil that works to protect against strains of HPV that cause genital warts as well as certain strains of HPV that are known to cause cervical cancer. 

Last Updated: April 07, 2016