November 1, 2014
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HPV

 Health Home >> HPV >> What women need to know about HPV 

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You can talk to your doctor or other health care provider to learn about preventing human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and the problems it can cause, like genital warts and cervical cancer. Prepare for your visit by using our HPV: Doctor Discussion Guide

 Frequently asked
 questions (FAQs)


Question: How common is HPV?

Find this and more answers to common questions about HPV.


HPV and the diseases I could get

HPV and cervical cancer

Did you know that cervical cancer is caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV)?

Although most HPV infections go away on their own without causing any harm, there are over 40 different types of HPV that affect the genital area, and 2 of these cause approximately 70% of cervical cancer cases. When these types of HPV infect the cells of the cervix (the opening to the uterus), it's a possibility that the cells will become cancerous.

How could cervical cancer affect your life?

  • If precancerous lesions (abnormal cells that could become cancer but haven't yet) are caught early through a Pap test, they can most often be successfully treated.
  • If the cancer is not caught early enough, this may mean you need to undergo surgery or radiation therapy.

Basically, the later the cancer is detected, the lower the survival rate.

In Canada, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women between 20 and 44 years old.

Find out ways to protect yourself against cervical cancer:

  • Ask your doctor about having regular Pap tests and checkups to help detect any problems early.
  • Be sure to practice safer sex.
  • Talk to your doctor about vaccination.

HPV and abnormal cervical cells (cervical dysplasia)

Female reproductive system

Female reproductive system

Although most HPV infections go away on their own without causing any harm, there are some types of HPV that can affect the genital area and lead to abnormal appearance and growth of cervical cells, or cervical dysplasia. Cervical dysplasia is not cancer, but the cells may be called precancerous because they can develop into cervical cancer. These abnormal cells don't usually cause symptoms, and the best way for you to find out if they're present is by having regular Pap tests.

Regular Pap tests can find these abnormal cells before they turn into cervical cancer, so it's very important to have Pap tests on a regular basis. Ask your doctor how often you should be having a Pap test. In general, young women and girls who are sexually active should have a Pap test within 3 years of first having sex or by age 18, and usually at regular intervals thereafter until around the age of 70, depending on the province you live in.

If your doctor says the results of your Pap test are abnormal, remember that this doesn't necessarily mean you have cancer. Stay calm! Every year about 4 to 5 million Pap tests are done in Canada and about 350,000 of them show abnormal results. Your doctor may want to remove the cells and you may be asked to go for more frequent Pap tests for a while until you get the "all clear." Some physicians may choose to take a "wait and see" approach along with more frequent Pap tests for mild cases of cervical dysplasia as these cases may go away on their own. Whichever approach you undergo, remember that you're not alone.

HPV and genital warts

Did you know that genital warts are caused by only certain types of HPV?

2 types of the HPV virus cause 90% of all cases of genital warts.

Genital warts look like flesh-coloured bumps and they can be flat or look like a typical wart. You might hear some people describing them as "cauliflower-like." Some can be so small that you can't see them, others can be larger. They usually appear on the cervix (outer end of the uterus) or vulva (the external parts of the female genital organs), but can also be in surrounding areas, including the thighs. In men, they can be on any genital area and the thighs, too. Genital warts are highly contagious: 2 out of 3 people who have sex with an infected partner will develop genital warts, usually within 3 months of sexual contact.

Look at a collection of pictures to see if you can tell what genital warts look like.

How could genital warts affect my life?

  • Many people develop self-esteem issues, are in denial, and feel embarrassed, angry, afraid, and disgusted. If you're intimate with a partner, it can be pretty embarrassing to have to tell them that you have genital warts.
  • Genital warts can cause itching, vaginal discharge, and even vaginal bleeding after sex.
  • Genital warts can also cause problems during pregnancy and during childbirth. In rare cases, they can also infect the baby, causing warts to form in the baby's throat.
  • Genital warts can be treated with prescription medications (applied directly to the warts), electric currents, freezing, or laser surgery, but because HPV cannot be cured, the warts may come back.

HPV and other health problems

Did you know that HPV can cause vulvar cancer (cancer of the external female genital area) and cancer of the vagina?

When certain types of HPV infect the cells of the vagina and vulva, they may cause the cells to change in ways that make them more likely to turn into cancer cells.

How could vulvar or vaginal cancers affect you?

  • If vulvar or vaginal cancer is caught early, it can be treated with surgery and the survival rates are good.
  • If the cancer is not detected until later, it's more serious. Survival rates are lower, and treatments would involve surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

HPV and other cancers

HPV can also cause cancer of the uterus and colon (anus) in women, and cancer of the penis, scrotum, and colon in men. It's also been found to cause some head and neck cancers.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the risk of getting infected with HPV. It's also possible to detect these cancers early. Pap tests can detect abnormal cervical cells and help catch cervical cancer, but other tests and examinations (e.g., a gynecological exam, also called a pelvic exam) should be done. Talk to your doctor about having regular Pap tests, pelvic exams and checkups, and find out how often you should be having them. Just call your doctor's office and ask. There's no need to be embarrassed; your doctor is a professional and hears these questions all the time. Also ask about all the things that you can do to protect yourself.


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