Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus that affects most people at some point in their lifetime. About 100 types of HPV can affect different parts of the body, but most are harmless and go away on their own. About 15 of these are considered “high-risk” and can cause abnormal cells to develop in the cervix that can lead to cervical cancer if left undetected. Getting the HPV vaccine (link to “What is the HPV vaccine”) can help protect you against certain types of HPV.
HPV is spread so easily that at least 7 out of 10 people will get it at some point in their lives. Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV.
The types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer usually don’t cause symptoms, so most people don’t even know they have it. Oftentimes the body fights the infection, and the virus goes away on its own within 2 years and without any serious effects.
Is there a cure for HPV?
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for HPV, and it can’t be treated with antibiotics. 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. When found early, abnormal cells can be treated so that cervical cancer doesn’t develop.
How do you get HPV?
HPV is easily spread by even brief skin-to-skin contact in the genital area. You don’t have to have intercourse to get HPV – you can get it through oral sex or simply by touching.
The high-risk types of HPV don’t cause symptoms, so most people don’t even know they have it – or that they’re passing it on to their partner. The virus can hide in your body for years without any symptoms.
Testing for HPV
If you’re 30 years or older, and the lab sees cell changes that are hard to read, your Pap test sample may be tested for HPV. This is called HPV reflex testing (link to HPV reflex testing in “Results and next steps”). If you are under 30, HPV will normally clear up on its own, so it isn’t tested for.