Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most widespread sexual infection. It’s so common that experts believe nearly everyone who becomes sexually active contracts it eventually. Most people with HPV never develop symptoms, and the infection is often squashed by the immune system before it causes health problems.
But sometimes, an HPV infection can lead to health problems like contagious genital warts (low-risk HPV) or an increased risk of developing cervical cancer (high-risk HPV).
At Panhandle Obstetrics and Gynecology in Amarillo, Texas, our seasoned team of women’s wellness experts knows it can be distressing to find out you have high-risk HPV, but we also know it doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer. Here’s what it does mean, and what you can expect next.
HPV is a group of 200 related viruses that live in the skin and on moist mucous membranes that line the inner parts of the body that open to the outside (i.e., vagina, anus). Several HPV types are transmitted through sexual contact; some carry a risk of minor health problems like genital warts, and others carry a risk of serious health problems like cancer.
In women, high-risk HPV strains can cause cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancer as well as esophageal (throat) cancer. In men, it can cause cancers of the penis, anus, and throat.
There are 12 high-risk HPV strains. Of these, just two HPV types — 16 and 18 — are known to cause the kind of abnormal cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer. Virtually all cervical cancer cases are caused by a high-risk HPV infection. HPV testing checks for these potentially dangerous strains.
HPV testing is currently only available for women, and it can only be used to detect high-risk strains on the cervix. It’s done during a routine pelvic exam with a quick cervical swab, typically in conjunction with a Pap smear.
Receiving positive HPV results means the test detected a high-risk strain of the infection. This doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer; it means you may have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. These results are all about risk and provide an opportunity for better risk management.
It’s important to remember that nearly all sexually active people contract HPV within a few months or years of becoming sexually active — and to note that high-risk HPV accounts for about half of all infections.
It’s also important to know that your immune system controls most high-risk HPV infections, clearing them from your body within a year or two, before they cause cell changes that lead to precancers and cancers.
Given that there’s no treatment for high-risk HPV, follow-up care after a positive HPV test has one goal: To mitigate your cervical cancer risk as much as possible.
Current risk management guidelines recommend a tailored follow-up approach that considers specific, individual factors when determining the right next steps for you. Before we advise your next course of action, we consider:
Our recommendations for next steps depend on your fully assessed and quantified risk of developing cervical cell changes that could become cancerous. We may advise you to:
For the average woman who receives a positive HPV test for the first time — especially in the absence of abnormal Pap results — watchful waiting is typically the best course of action. In most cases, women who return for a follow-up HPV test or combination HPV/Pap test a year later receive negative results.
Remember: Just as your immune system can fight off a high-risk HPV infection and keep you from developing cervical cancer, you can be exposed to the virus in the future and develop a new high-risk infection. The bottom line? HPV is common, and keeping tabs on your status is one of the best ways to prevent cervical cancer.
Do you have questions about HPV management or prevention? We’re here to help. Schedule a visit at Panhandle Obstetrics and Gynecology by calling our office at 806-359-5468 today.