August 27, 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.


Frequently asked questions about HPV

If you've got questions about HPV, our experts have the answers! Here are expert responses to the most frequently asked HPV questions.

What is HPV?
HPV stands for human papillomavirus. It is a very common virus that can cause a wide range of health problems, including genital warts and various types of cancer, such as cervical cancer. There are over 100 different types of HPV, but most of these cause only minor health problems, such as warts on your hands or feet.

However, there are over 40 types that affect the genital area and can lead to more serious health problems. Some types of HPV are considered to be high-risk types and can lead to some cancers, such as cervical cancer and cancer of the vulva (external vaginal area) and vagina. Other lower-risk HPV types lead to genital warts. They're called low-risk because they're unlikely to cause cancer.

What are the symptoms of HPV?
Often, there aren't any symptoms at all. Lots of people have HPV without even knowing it. There are many different types of HPV. Some affect the skin of the body, leading to warts on the feet or hands, and others affect the genitals. Some of these types of HPV cause genital warts, and others can cause changes in the cells of the cervix, leading to abnormal cells and cervical cancer.

Genital warts are flesh-coloured bumps that can be flat or raised, and they can look cauliflower-like. Although genital warts may not cause symptoms, some women do feel itching or have vaginal discharge or bleeding after having sex.

Abnormal cells on the cervix don't usually cause symptoms and the best way to know if you have them is to get regular Pap tests. Pap tests are the most effective way to catch abnormal cervical cells and cervical cancer early, so that they can be treated more easily. Speak to your doctor about when you should have a Pap test.

Can I get HPV even if I don't have sexual intercourse?
The short answer here is "Yes." You can catch HPV simply through skin-to-skin contact with the genital area of an infected person during an intimate encounter. Skin-to-skin contact can be as simple as rubbing the penis against the opening of the vagina or anus, or kissing the genitals. You do not need to have sex, whether it's oral, vaginal, or anal, to spread the infection.

How often do you have to be exposed to HPV to get it?
You can become infected with HPV during your very first sexual encounter, even if you don't actually have sex. That's why it's so important that you talk to your doctor as soon as possible about how to protect yourself against the virus and the problems it can cause.

The ideal time for this talk is before you become sexually active, but even if you've started having sex, it's not too late! Talk to your doctor about ways to protect yourself from HPV.

If my partner or I have a genital wart, won't I know it?
No, not necessarily. You might be able to see the warts on visible parts of the body, but they can be very small or inside, where you can't see them at all.

Is there a test to detect HPV?
There is a test to detect HPV, but screening for HPV is not included in the regular sexually transmitted infection testing. The HPV test detects the high-risk (the ones most likely to cause cancer) HPV strains but it is not widely available. Doctors rarely recommend the test because most HPV found in people rarely cause any health problems.

How common is HPV?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI, also known by the older term sexually transmitted disease or STD) in the world. Up to 75% of sexually active Canadians will be infected with HPV at least once in their lives.

Can HPV be cured?
No, unfortunately, there is no cure for HPV yet. Genital warts and abnormal cervical cells can be removed, but the virus will stay in your body. Often, your body can get rid of the virus on its own, but sometimes it might not. The best thing is to prevent being infected in the first place. Talk to your doctor about your options for protecting yourself against HPV infection and the problems it can cause, such as cervical cancer and genital warts.

How can I prevent HPV infection?
The only sure way of preventing an HPV infection is to abstain from any sexual activity of any kind. Not going to happen? If you do plan to have sex or have already started sexual activity, practicing safer sex will help lower your risk of getting HPV. You can also consider getting vaccinated against HPV. There are 2 vaccines available that help to protect against certain types of HPV. The HPV vaccines provide protection against 2 types of HPV that cause 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. One HPV vaccine also provides protection against the 2 types of HPV that cause 90% of all genital warts. Other diseases associated with these types of HPV include vulvar, vaginal, and anal cancer. However, the vaccines do not protect against all types of HPV, or all causes of cervical cancer and genital warts. Talk to your doctor to find out more about your options for protecting yourself against HPV.

What can I do to protect myself from HPV infection?
There are 3 main ways to help reduce your risk of HPV infection:

  • Have regular checkups and Pap tests. These will help catch problems early while they are still easy to treat.
  • Practice safer sex.
  • Talk to your doctor to find out if HPV vaccination, which helps protect against certain types of HPV, might be right for you

What do genital warts look like?
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 (lower part of the uterus) or vulva (the external parts of the female genital organs), but they 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 and are sometimes difficult to see with the naked eye, which is why people with genital warts are often unaware that they have them, as the infection can spread without their knowledge.

Figure 1

Image courtesy of the Public Health Image Library of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

What is the difference between high-risk and low-risk types of HPV?
Some types of HPV are considered to be high-risk types and can lead to some cancers, such as cervical cancer and cancer of the vulva (external vaginal area) and the vagina. Other lower-risk types of HPV lead to genital warts. They're called low-risk because they're unlikely to cause cancer.

What is a Pap test?
A Pap test, also called a Pap smear, is a simple test that can help protect you from cervical cancer. Your doctor uses the Pap test to check the cells on your cervix (the lower part of your uterus) to detect abnormal cervical cells before they have a chance to develop into cervical cancer. This helps catch cervical cancer while it's still early and easy to treat. Remember, a Pap test is one of the best screening methods for detecting abnormal cells. Learn more about Pap tests and HPV.

What does it mean if I have an abnormal Pap test?
An abnormal Pap result does not mean you have cancer. About 4 to 5 million Pap tests are done every year in Canada and only about 350,000 get an abnormal result, and only a fraction of those (1,400) are cancer. Abnormal Pap results means there is a change in the cells of the cervix. Changes in the cells could be a result of a vaginal infection, a sexually transmitted infection (STI), HPV (which is a specific type of STI), or hormone level changes, among other causes. Remember: most cervical cancers take 10 years to develop. And many cervical abnormalities return to normal within 1 to 2 years. Discuss your results with your doctor, who will let you know if further tests, such as an HPV or STI test, are needed.

When should I start getting a Pap test?
Once you become sexually active, you need to start getting a Pap test (also known as Pap smear) within 3 years after you first have sex or by the age of 18, whichever comes first.

How often should I have a Pap test?
Your doctor may recommend a different schedule, but in general, after you have had 3 or more "normal" Pap tests in a row, you can begin having a Pap test every 2 to 3 years.

If you have any questions about protecting yourself from HPV infection, speak to your doctor.


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