Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted DNA tumor virus that is carcinogenic to humans. It can infect both men and women and is transmitted via vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, or skin to skin contact. The HPV virus can cause abnormal Pap tests, genital warts, and cervical cancer. Rarely, it can also cause vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile, throat and head/neck cancers. HPV is very common in sexually active women. Approximately 50% of women are infected by HPV within 4 years of initiating sex and up to 60-80% have been exposed during their lifetime. There are more than 100 types of the virus identified. The virus types are broken down into two groups: low-risk and high-risk types. Low risk HPV types can cause genital warts. The high risk types of HPV are the ones that can cause cervical cancer, the most common being HPV 16. Of the women infected, 70% clear the virus within 36 months and only 20% have persistent disease. A small percentage will progress to high-grade disease or develop cervical cancer. Progression of HPV to cervical cancer is extremely rare in young women and if it occurs it generally takes years to develop. Young, healthy, non-smoking women are more likely to clear the infection without surgical intervention.
The best way to decrease your risk of HPV is to limit your number of sexual partners, use condoms every time you have sex, abstain from smoking, and if you are 26 years old or younger, get vaccinated with the HPV vaccine series.
To learn more about HPV and Pap smear screening guidelines, please visit the Navigating HPV website.