HPV and cervical cancer risk
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Some types of high-risk HPV can cause cell damage in women that can lead to cervical cancer.
The NHS helps protect women against this infection by offering HPV vaccination to girls aged 12 – 13 years old at school. Safe sex is another way of reducing the risk of HPV.
If diagnosed and treated, cervical cells can return to normal. But left untreated, cells in the cervix can continue to change abnormally. This can lead to cervical cancer.
The changes to the cells covering the cervix are called cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia, or CIN.
There are not usually any symptoms caused by CIN.
However, cervical cancer may cause abnormal vaginal bleeding, bleeding after sex and abnormal vaginal discharge.
Early signs of cervical cancer may be picked up during a routine smear test.
HPV types associated with cervical cancer are transmitted through sexual activity. The chance of getting HPV increases with certain risk factors:
- Number of lifetime sexual partners - risk increases with more partners.
- Young age: Women aged 20 to 24 are most likely to be infected, but they usually clear the HPV infection with no problems.
- Women who are sexually active with men who have other partners at the same time.
Treatment of HPV infection
If your smear test is abnormal, the doctor may suggest more frequent smear tests. Or the doctor may refer you for a colposcopy, in which a lighted magnifying device is used to closely examine cervical tissues.
Researchers have discovered that high-risk HPV viruses produce certain proteins. These proteins interfere with the cell functions that limit excessive cell growth.
If abnormal cervical tissue changes progress, treatment of the HPV infection may be needed. Among the options are surgery, laser treatment, and freezing.
Pregnant women, or women considering pregnancy, should consult closely with their doctor. The risk of passing HPV on to the baby is very low. But HPV treatments can affect pregnancy, so doctors may want to delay treatment until after childbirth.