The human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, can cause changes on the cells of the cervix that may eventually to cervical cancer. This is the reason routine Pap tests are so important, as lesions caught early on have a much higher success rate than those lesions known as "high grade".
There is a great deal of misinformation, embarrassment and shame surrounding HPV. Here are five facts every woman (and man!) should know.
First, HPV is passed through skin-to-skin contact and can lay dormant for years. Actual sexual intercourse or fluid exchange does not need to occur to pass the virus. Because it may not cause changes for a long time, this may make it difficult to determine who gave it to you. Do not always assume your partner is cheating if you develop an abnormal Pap while in a monogamous relationship.
Second, HPV is responsible for cervical cancer but it can also be implicated in throat, mouth, laryngeal, labial, vulvar, penile and anal cancer. Remember, transmission is skin-to-skin and while true intercourse may not occur, sexual activity may still dictate vaginal, mouth, or anal contact.
Third, most sexually active people have come in contact with the HPV virus though percentages vary. This does not mean a woman will automatically develop cervical changes or that you will test positive for HPV. It is similar to being exposed to the flu virus and not coming down with the flu.
Fourth, there are two HVP vaccines available. The vaccine Gardasil has four HPV strains in it. Strain 16 and 18 are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers. Strains 6 and 11 protect against genital warts.
The Gardasil vaccine is recommended to both boys and girls ages 9-26. Remember that men can pass it to women and other men, and HPV is implicated in a number of cancers other than cervical.
Fifth, the Pap test does not specifically test for HVP. The Pap test collects cells on the surface of the cervix for evaluation by a pathologist. On microscopic review, the cells may appear abnormal and an HPV DNA test can be added to see if the abnormality is due to HPV influence.
On the flip side, the cells may appear normal but at a DNA level may be experiencing HPV changes which a pathologist may not be able to see. This is why the 2012 guidelines recommend that all women over 30 years old add an HPV DNA test to their Pap test.
Understanding HPV and how it works is the first step in protecting men and women from the risks of cancer. For a variety of reasons, women tend to put off or forget about their Pap test. But it is important to remember that the end goal is prevention of disease, and optimal health.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). HPV Vaccine – Questions and Answers. Web. 27 June, 2014. Retrieved from
Erickson, B., Alvarez, R., and Huh, W. (2013). Human Papillomavirus: What Every Provider Should Know. Web. 27 January, 2014. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2013;208:169-175.
Reviewed January 28, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg
Edited by Jody Smith