I am a 42-year-old and was told recently that I had an abnormal pap smear positive for HPV. What does this mean? Will I develop cervical cancer in the future?
HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus and is the most common STD in women. It is the sole cause of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer world wide in women. 79% of women will have an HPV infection at some point in their lifetime. 90% of women will clear the infection within two years. Low risk HPV types can cause genital warts and high risk HPV types cause cervical and genital tract cancers.
HPV infection occurs with contact with infected genital skin and is the reason condoms may not stop all HPV transmission. Genital warts are very infectious and up to 69% of contacts will develop an infection. The peak prevalence of HPV infection is in women in their 20’s, and then another peak occurs in postmenopausal women. It takes 10 to 20 years to develop cancer after infection with HPV, usually women in their 40’s. In addition to cervical cancer, HPV can also cause cancer of the anus, vagina, vulva and the penis.
HPV infection can be detected with a pap smear. Risk factors for contracting HPV are multiple sex partners, history of other STDs, sex at an early age, and inconsistent use of condoms.
How do we prevent HPV infection?
There are two vaccines available. Gardasil protects against HPV types 16 and 18, which cause cervical cancer and HPV 6 and 11, which can cause genital warts. It is given to girls ages 9 until age 26 years of age. Cervarix is another vaccine that protects against HPV types 16 and 18 and is approved for ages 10 to 25 years of age. The most common side effects of the vaccines are dizziness, nausea, syncope, and local injection reactions. Although controversial, Gardasil is also approved for boys 9 to 18 years of age to prevent contraction of genital warts. Circumcision seems to decrease HPV infection in men. The vaccines are the most effective when given prior to a person becoming sexually active, as it will not help a patient already infected with HPV. These vaccines have been found to be 98% effective in the prevention of HPV infection in clinical trials.
For further information about HPV, contact your local primary care provider.