Get the Facts: HPV

by Dana Demas

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month.   

Each year, more than 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. The good news is that cervical cancer is a highly preventable and treatable disease. 

Most cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) – a skin infection that can cause warts on hands, feet and genitals. HPV is passed through skin-to-skin contact and more than 150 strains of the virus exist. 

Some strains of HPV can cause abnormal cells in the cervix. If left untreated, over time these abnormal cells may develop into cancer. In the majority of cases, HPV infection causes no symptoms and the virus is cleared from the body before a woman knows she has it. Even if abnormal cervical cells are detected, the risk of cervical cancer is small with regular monitoring by a doctor. 

So how can every woman protect her cervical health?

Women Under Age 26

Talk with your doctor about the HPV vaccine, which prevents about 70% of cervical cancers. The best time to get the vaccine is before beginning sexual activity, though it is approved for women up to age 26. Even if you get the vaccine, routine Pap smears are important to monitor for the 30% of cervical cancers not prevented by the vaccine.

Women Age 30 and Older

Talk with your doctor about the HPV Test, which can detect 90% of HPV infections. In comparison, routine Pap testing detects 50%-80% of HPV infections and often requires additional testing. The HPV test also identifies high-risk infections that have a greater chance of turning cancerous.