HPV Facts for women
For women & people with a cervix living with HIV, how often should they need to get screened for cervical cancer?
It is very important that women & people with a cervix living with HIV get screened for cervical cancer. HPV causes genital warts and other HPV-related cancers including cervical cancer. Cervical screening to prevent cervical cancer is performed by doing a Pap test on women and people with a cervix. This test checks for cell changes in the cervix.
Newly diagnosed with HIV women and people with a cervix aged 21 to 29 years old, should have a Pap test at the time of initial diagnosis with HIV. When the Pap test result is normal, the next Pap test should occur in 12 months. If the results of three consecutive Pap tests are normal, follow-up Pap tests should be every 3 years.
Some places offer cervical screening through co-testing (Pap test & HPV test;) which is a modernized, accurate, test that is performed the same as a pap test, it screens for types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. This high-performance test is recommended for ALL woman and people with a cervix from the age of 30 (where available).
If co-testing with a Pap test and HPV test is available, then co-testing can be done at the time of their HIV diagnosis or/and at age 30. Women and people with a cervix who co-test negative (i.e., a normal Pap test result and negative HPV test result) should have their next cervical screening in 3 years to screen for types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.
Healthcare professionals can detect genital warts caused by HPV during a medical exam.
How Can You Prevent HPV-Related Cancer?
- Try to avoid getting HPV by getting vaccinated and using condoms (see above).
- Go for cervical screening if it’s available. Cervical screening aims to detect the cell changes caused by HPV so that the abnormal cells can be removed before they can turn into cancer. Many countries offer cervical screening- ask your healthcare provider for more information.
- Screening for changes caused by HPV in the anus is also available in some locations. Anal screening is relatively new and is still very limited- ask your healthcare provider for more information.
- If you smoke, try to stop. Smoking can make it harder for your immune system to get rid of HPV.
- If you have any symptoms or changes to your body that are unusual for you, such as pain in the anal or genital area, a new growth or lump, or bleeding, get them checked by a healthcare provider.
Is It Possible To Screen For HPV-Related Cancer?
Currently, there is only screening for cervical cancer. The goal of screening is not only to find cervical cancer but also to find cell changes in the cervix (known as cervical dysplasia). Treating these cell changes can prevent cancer developing. Screening for and treating cell changes is highly effective at reducing the risk of cervical cancer.
If an HPV test is used as the primary screening procedure, the result will identify women who are at risk of cell changes and cancer. Further tests are done based on age, type of HPV infection and previous screening results.
Researchers recently discovered that screening for cell changes in the anus (anal dysplasia) can reduce the risk of anal cancer among people living with HIV. In the coming years, screening for anal cell changes and anal cancer may become standard of care for people living with HIV. More research is needed to see if anal cancer screening also works in other groups at increased risk of anal cancer, such as men who have sex with men.
There are no recommended screening tests to reduce the risk of vulvar or vaginal cancer, penile cancer or head and neck cancers.
If you notice any symptoms or changes to these parts of your body that are unusual for you, it is best to get them checked by your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Who Can Get Screened For Cervical Cancer?
The World Health Organization recommends cervical screening from age 30, but it starts earlier in some countries. Screening usually stops around age 65. Anyone with a cervix should have regular screening. Talk to your healthcare provider about the screening schedule that is right for you.
What Is Cervical Cancer Screening?
Cervical cancer screening includes three steps:
- The screening test. This is the first step of the process, aimed at picking up cell changes.
- The diagnostic test. If cell changes are found, further tests are needed to diagnose cervical dysplasia.
- Treatment of cervical dysplasia (cell changes).
How Is The Screening Test Done?
During the screening test, a healthcare provider takes a sample of cells from the cervix using a small swab or brush. This is tested for HPV or cell changes (or both). The procedure is very safe and generally painless but may be uncomfortable for some.
What Is HPV Self-Sampling?
In some parts of the world, HPV self-sampling may be available. In this case you can collect a sample of cells from the cervix yourself using a cotton-tipped small stick (swab) or a soft brush with instructions. This approach is easy to use, and many women prefer to collect the sample this way.
What Happens If My Diagnostic Test Result Is Abnormal?
If your diagnostic test (coloscopy) result is abnormal, you will need treatment to remove or destroy the abnormal cervical cells. The next step will be to do a biopsy, which involves taking a small sample of body tissue so it can be examined under a microscope.
If your biopsy shows cervical cancer, you will usually have more tests to find out if it has spread. The earlier the cancer is diagnosed, the better the outcome of treatment, so attending regular screenings and going to any follow-up appointments is very important.
If your biopsy shows cervical dysplasia (cell changes) then treatment usually involves removing the abnormal tissue. The treatment is done differently depending on your location. The affected area can be removed with a thin wire loop with an electric current or destroyed with heat or cold. Being treated for cervical dysplasia can be uncomfortable and can cause some bleeding, but the pain and bleeding are usually mild and don’t last long. The treatment does not affect your ability to have babies but rarely, it can lead to premature births. Very importantly, your risk of developing cervical cancer in the future is greatly reduced if you receive the treatment.
Additional resources with reliable information about screening for HPV cancer
If I Have Both HIV And HPV, Do I Need To Be Screened For HPV Cancers More Often?
Cervical screening in women and people with a cervix with HIV should continue throughout their lifetime. Either Pap testing only, or Pap testing and HPV co-testing, where available, is acceptable for cervical screening.
I’ve Had The HPV Vaccine – Do I Still Need To Be Screened?
The vaccine reduces your risk of HPV-related cancers by about 90%. But even if you have had the HPV vaccine, you still need to have cervical screening. This is because the vaccine will not protect you against HPV types that you may have acquired before being vaccinated. In addition, you might still get infected after vaccination with the rarer HPV types that can cause cancer but which are not covered by the vaccine.
I’ve Never Had Sex – Should I Get Screened For HPV?
If you’ve never sexual contact of any kind, your risk of getting genital or anal HPV is very low, but vaccination and screening may be sensible protective measures for the future. The vaccine is most effective if given before you have any sexual contact. Talk to your healthcare provider.
I Was Screened And Don’t Have HPV – Does That Mean I’m Not At Risk Of HPV-Related Cancer?
It means that your risk of developing HPV-related cancer in the near future is very low. However, you should continue to attend all recommended cancer screenings and follow your country’s screening policies. Talk to your healthcare provider.
My Partner Has Told Me That They Have HPV. Does That Mean I Have It Too?
Not necessarily, but HPV infection often affects both partners within a few months. HPV is largely invisible and usually doesn’t cause any symptoms.
You or your partner could have HPV without knowing it. In some cases, routine cervical cancer screening may include testing for HPV. Men and women have HPV in equal numbers. There are no approved tests for HPV infection in men.