Cervical Cancer and Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. HPV, which also causes genital warts, is spread primarily through sexual contact. About half of all sexually active young women become infected with the virus, but only 10% remain infected for more than 5 years.
The risk for cervical cancer is highest for women who have persistent long-term infection with one of the two high-risk strains of HPV. Half of all cervical cancer diagnoses occur in women ages 35 - 55.
Two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, are now available to prevent (not treat) cervical cancer in girls and young women. Both vaccines protect against HPV-16 and HPV-18, the two HPV strains that cause most cases of cervical cancer. Gardasil, but not Cervarix, also protects against HPV-6 and HPV-11, the two viruses that cause most cases of genital warts.
Pap Smear Screening
Current guidelines for cervical cancer screening recommend:
- Women up to age 30. Cervical cancer screening should begin at age 21 and be repeated once every 2 years.
- Women ages 30 and older. Cervical cancer screening is recommended once every 2 years. If a woman has had three consecutive negative (normal) Pap tests, she can be screened once every 3 years. After age 65, most women can stop having Pap tests, as long as they have had three negative tests within the past 10 years
The HPV DNA test is useful for:
- Womenover age 30 for routine testing. Regular HPV testing, along with a Pap smear, is helpful for women ages 30 and older. Routine HPV testing is not helpful for women younger than age 30 because the virus usually goes away on its own.
- Women of any age with slightly abnormal Pap test results. For these women, the HPV DNA test can help determine if more tests, or treatment, are needed.
Review Date: 10/21/2010
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.