Cervical Cancer ScreeningAt a Glance Screening & Results Your Risk Factors About HPV & HPV Vaccine How to Book a Pap Test Myths & Facts Resources
About 75% of sexually active Albertans will get HPV in their lifetime.
About HPV and the HPV vaccine
HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a very common virus that affects most women at some point in their lifetime. About 100 types of HPV can affect different parts of the body, and most are harmless and go away on their own. However, there are about 45 types of HPV that can be spread easily by skin-to skin contact in the genital area. About 15 of these are considered high-risk and can cause abnormal cells to develop in the cervix that can lead to cancer.
What’s the link between HPV and cervical cancer?
You may be wondering how a common virus can lead to something as serious as cervical cancer. Here’s how:
- For most women, the body fights the HPV infection and clears the virus on its own without doing any harm.
- For some, the virus can survive for years, putting them at risk of developing more serious cervical cell changes.
- About 15 high-risk types of HPV can cause changes in the cells of the cervix that can lead to cervical cancer if left undetected.
The best way to find abnormal cells that don’t go away on their own is to have Pap tests regularly so your healthcare provider can find abnormal cells early and help make sure they don’t develop into cervical cancer.
How do you get high-risk HPV?
HPV is easily spread by even a brief moment of skin-to skin contact in the genital area. In other words, you don’t have to have intercourse to get HPV – you can contract it through oral sex or simply by touching.
Because high-risk HPV doesn’t cause symptoms, most people don’t even know they have it – or that they’re passing it on to their partner. The virus can actually hide in your body for years without any sign of it.
Is there a test for HPV?
If you’re 30 years or older and the lab sees cell changes in your Pap test that are hard to read, your Pap test sample will be tested for HPV. This is called HPV reflex testing. This reflex testing is done because when high-risk HPV is found in women 30 years and older, it is more likely to be a longer lasting infection. And longer lasting infections are what cause serious cervical cell changes. Your healthcare provider will want the cells of your cervix looked at more closely.
In women younger than 30, HPV testing doesn’t help in deciding which women need follow-up care. This is because HPV is more common among younger women and will usually clear on its own.
Can HPV be treated?
Usually the body fights the HPV infection and the virus clears up on its own within two years without you even knowing you had it in the first place. But if you have a Pap test and abnormal cells are found on your cervix, your healthcare provider may recommend additional Pap tests or refer you to a specialist for a colposcopy. A colposcopy will find any abnormal cells that need to be monitored and treated, if needed.
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for these viruses and they can’t be treated with antibiotics. But deciding to have a Pap test regularly is the best thing you can do to help make sure abnormal cervical cells caused by HPV are found early and treated, if needed, so that cervical cancer doesn’t develop.
What is the HPV vaccine?
One of the things you can do to protect yourself against HPV is to get the HPV vaccine before you become sexually active. Remember that sexual activity includes any skin-to-skin contact in the genital area. The vaccine can prevent 2 types of HPV that cause about 70% of all cases of cervical cancer.
But even if you’re already sexually active, you can still benefit from getting the vaccine because it may protect you from types of HPV you haven’t been exposed to yet.
Currently, HPV immunization is offered free of charge in Alberta to all girls and boys in Grade 6. Those who don’t receive the vaccine in Grade 6 will be offered it in Grade 9 and continue to be eligible to receive the vaccine, free of charge, until the end of Grade 12. The vaccine is also available to others for a fee (varies by location). The HPV vaccine requires a series of 3 shots and the cost is about $150 per shot. If you have private or extended insurance coverage, it’s worth checking to see if the HPV vaccine is included in your policy.
If you’re thinking about getting the vaccine for yourself, or if you have any questions:
- Talk to your healthcare provider
- Visit ImmunizeAlberta.ca
- Use Alberta Health Services’ HPV Vaccine Decision Tool
Remember that even if you decide to get the HPV vaccine, you still need to have a Pap test regularly. The vaccine doesn’t protect against all the types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer so it’s important to continue getting screened.
Get a parent’s view on common concerns about HPV and the HPV vaccine. From HPV Info Canada.
How can you reduce your risk of getting HPV?
There are certain things you can do to help stay healthy and protect yourself against HPV. Even if you’ve not paid much attention to this part of your health before, it’s never too late to start.
- Talk to your healthcare provider about the HPV vaccine and whether it’s right for you.
- Understand that sexual activity or any skin-to-skin contact in the genital area increases your exposure to HPV.
- Know that each new sexual partner increases the odds that you’ll come in contact with someone who has an HPV infection, putting you at risk of getting infected. Knowing your partner’s sexual history is also important.
- Make the decision to use condoms, which can reduce your chance of getting HPV. Keep in mind that the virus may be on skin that isn’t covered by a condom, so it can still be passed on even if condoms are used.
- Understand that sexual activity at a young age increases your risk of being infected with HPV.