Human papilloma virus, or HPV, affects nearly all sexually active men and women at some point in their lives. Many people “clear” or fight off their infections without ever knowing that they had an infection at all. However, a percentage of people with the virus do not clear their infections and may develop genital warts, cervical cancer, or other types of cancer.

We spoke to Dr. Terez Yonan, an adolescent medicine specialist at CHOC Children’s, to get the facts on HPV and how it can indeed lead to cervical cancer.

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Dr. Terez Yonan, an adolescent medicine specialist at CHOC Children’s.

How common is HPV?

There are nearly 80 million people currently infected with HPV in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and nearly 14 million people, including teenagers, become infected with HPV each year.

How does HPV lead to cervical cancer?

The most common way to contract HPV is through sexual contact, from a direct transmission from one person’s genitals to the other. When transmitted vaginally, the HPV cells will integrate into cells of the vaginal wall and cervix. This changes the composition of the normal, healthy cells and you end up with dysplasia, also known as abnormal and pre-cancerous cells. This can worsen and turn into cervical cancer.

For people with a normal immune system, it could take years for HPV to turn into cervical cancer, but for someone who is immune-compromised, that process could take just a few months.

HPV does not always lead to cervical cancer. There are what we call high-grade infections and low-grade infections. Low-grade infections are easily cleared by the body on its own. It takes about two years for a healthy person to clear HPV. High-grade infections can last longer in the body and put you at risk for cervical cancer or genital warts. Although not considered dangerous, genital warts are unsightly and can cause irritation depending on where they are. If not treated, warts can grow into different types of cancer, including oral and anal and penile cancer.

What are the warning signs of cervical cancer?

Most of the time, people don’t know they have HPV because there are no warning signs. In some cases, genital warts may appear. Abnormal vaginal bleeding can be a sign of cervical cancer. If you notice abnormal bleeding, consult your primary care provider, gynecologist, or adolescent medicine specialist.

Can I get tested for HPV?

A Pap smear, also called a Pap test, is a pelvic exam designed to test for cervical cancer in women. An HPV test can be done using the same sample of cells collected during a Pap smear.

When should I get my first Pap smear?

A Pap smear is intended for healthy, sexually-active people. They are generally not recommended before 21 years of age. For people who are immunocompromised, Pap smears are recommended when you become sexually active regardless of age because of the increased risk for picking up infections , and for those infections to more quickly develop into cancer.

How often should I get a Pap smear?

Someone who is immunocompromised needs two Pap smears within the first year of becoming sexually active. If those are normal, the exam can be done annually. Healthy women in their 20s need a Pap smear every three years. Beginning at age 30, Pap smears can usually be done every five years.

Who can do my Pap smear?

You can get a Pap smear from your adolescent medicine specialist, family medicine provider, internal medicine provider, or gynecologist. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants  in each of these offices can perform the exam as well.

What does an abnormal Pap smear mean?

If your results are abnormal, you will undergo more frequent Pap smears for monitoring, until your results are in the normal range. The frequency of these Pap smears will be determined by your doctor, but it could range from every three months to every year. Since many people’s bodies clear HPV on their own, when the results are clear again, you will return to an every three- or five-year schedule for Pap smears, depending on your age.

Your doctor may suggest a colposcopy, another type of cervical cancer test. This gives them a better view of your cervix. If they identify cells that may be abnormal, they will perform a biopsy and remove a tiny sample of tissue from either the inside or outside of your cervix. If the biopsy confirms the presence of abnormal cells, your doctor will discuss specific treatment options.

How can I prevent cervical cancer?

Receiving the HPV vaccine is the only way to protect against cervical cancer. Each year in the U.S., 13,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. This number has decreased since the introduction of the HPV vaccine.

What happens if I get cervical cancer?

If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, you will be referred to a gynecologic oncologist—a doctor who specializes in cancers of the female reproductive system. Most cases require chemotherapy, and some require radiation as well. Surgery may be a treatment option.

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