What you need to know about human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that is most easily passed during sexual contact. The body clears most HPV infections on its own. But certain types of the virus can cause a condition called cervical dysplasia, which can then develop into cervical cancer. The cervix is the narrow, lower end of the uterus (womb), which connects to the vagina. Certain types of HPV can cause other types of cancer. Some other types can cause warts of the genitals or anus (anogenital warts).
HPV cannot be cured by medication, but vaccines can prevent a person from getting some types of HPV, including the types that most often cause cervical cancer. Consistent and correct condom use can reduce but not eliminate the risk of getting or passing on HPV during vaginal, anal or oral sex, and when sharing sex toys.
Early screening and treatment for cervical dysplasia can help prevent cervical cancer from developing. If cervical cancer is caught and treated early, this can prevent the cancer from getting worse or spreading.
The words we use here – CATIE is committed to using language that is relevant to everyone. People use different terms to describe their bodies. This text uses medical terms, such as vagina and penis, to describe genitals. Other people may use other terms, such as private parts or dick or front hole. CATIE acknowledges and respects that people use words that they are most comfortable with.
What are human papillomavirus (HPV), cervical dysplasia and cervical cancer?
HPV is a virus that is most easily passed on during sex. There are many different types of HPV, and they can infect different parts of the body.
Many people with HPV have no symptoms, so they don’t know they have an infection – but they can still pass it on.
Some types of HPV can cause cancers, including cancer of the cervix (cervical cancer). The cervix is the narrow, lower end of the uterus (womb), which connects to the vagina.
Cervical cancer starts as a condition called cervical dysplasia. Cervical dysplasia happens when abnormal cells form together in groups called lesions (areas of abnormal tissue).
If it is not identified and treated early, cervical dysplasia sometimes leads to cervical cancer.
Cervical dysplasia usually doesn’t show symptoms, particularly in the early stages. Similarly, cervical cancer often shows no obvious symptoms until it is advanced and harder to treat. Symptoms of cervical cancer can include pain in the abdomen (belly) or lower back, pain or bleeding during sex, unusual fluid coming out of the vagina, or bleeding from the vagina between periods (menstruation). Some of these symptoms are not specific to cervical cancer, so they may be mistaken for other conditions.
Am I at risk of getting HPV, cervical dysplasia or cervical cancer?
Almost all cases of cervical dysplasia and cervical cancer are caused by HPV, so having HPV is the most important risk factor for these conditions.
Anyone who is sexually active, including people who experience sexual violence, can get HPV.
HPV is most easily passed on during insertive sex without a condom. This includes vaginal and anal sex.
HPV can also be passed on through:
- oral sex (mouth on penis; mouth on vagina)
- oral-anal contact (rimming)
- sharing sex toys
- during a hand job or fingering
- through skin-to-skin contact of the genitals (even if no body fluids are present)
For people who have one or more of the types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, certain factors increase the chances of cervical cancer developing.
- cigarette smoking
- unhealthy diet
- long term use of oral contraceptives (birth control pills)
Some groups of people carry a higher burden of cervical cancer (it is more common):
- people who have given birth to more than one child
- people born to a pregnant parent who used certain kinds of estrogen supplement
- people who have had other HPV-related conditions like anal cancer
HPV and HIV
HIV weakens the immune system which can make a person more vulnerable to some illnesses, including cervical cancer. Effective HIV treatment greatly lowers the chances of developing HIV-related illnesses including some cancers.
HIV treatment can’t prevent cervical cancer on its own, but with regular exams and Pap tests, studies have shown that in high-income countries like Canada, cervical cancer is not common in people living with HIV.
What can I do?
Reduce your chances of getting HPV infections
Get vaccinated against HPV. HPV vaccines are widely available and highly effective. Talk to your healthcare provider about your options.
Use a condom during vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse.
Use a condom or oral dam during oral sex.
When sharing a sex toy, use a new condom and wash the toy between every use.
If you experience any symptoms of cervical cancer, speak with a healthcare provider right away.
If you don’t have any symptoms, speak with your healthcare provider about when you should start routine screening for cervical dysplasia and cervical cancer.
To screen for cervical dysplasia and cancer, a healthcare provider does a cervical Pap test. During this test, a tiny brush and small spatula are inserted into the vagina to collect cells from the cervix. These cells are then studied in a lab to see if they are abnormal. Tests may also be done to see if a person has a type of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
If abnormal cells, or a cancer-causing HPV type are found, a specialist may do a follow-up exam using a special magnifying device (colposcopy). This allows the specialist to examine the cervix closely. A small tissue sample (biopsy) may be taken, to determine if there are signs of dysplasia or cancer.
HPV cannot be cured from the body with medication.
Several treatments are used for cervical dysplasia to remove or destroy lesions before they lead to cancer. Treatments include freezing (cryotherapy), laser treatment and surgery. Some of these treatments can be quite effective if the dysplasia is treated early.
Treatments for cervical cancer aim to remove cancerous tissue, slow the cancer’s growth and/or prevent it from spreading to other parts of the body. Treatment may involve surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or combinations of these and other treatments. Treatments are most effective if the cancer is diagnosed and treated early.
This information sheet was developed in partnership with the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN).