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Screening for HPV and cancer

HPV is the human papillomavirus. It is a common virus that 4/5 of us will have at some point in our lives. It’s invisible, usually has no symptoms, is easy to get and easy to pass on without knowing. HPV can cause 6 different types of cancer and is the cause of almost all cervical cancer diagnoses.

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Cervical screening is an important tool in cancer prevention. Sometimes called a ‘pap’ or a ‘smear’ test cervical screening can check for HPV infection and for changes in the cells in the neck of the womb that could go on to become cancer.

If you are invited to attend a cervical screening make sure you attend. During your screening a sample of cells from the cervix is collected and sent to a laboratory for testing. The examination is not painful and usually takes just a few minutes. 

HPV Facts about Screening

The types of HPV that can cause cancer in the genital region, anal region, and throat are mostly spread through sexual contact. They can also spread from one part your genital skin or throat to another part of your genital skin or throat.

  1. Try to avoid getting HPV by getting vaccinated and using condoms (see above).
  2. 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.  
  3. 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.  
  4. If you smoke, try to stop. Smoking can make it harder for your immune system to get rid of HPV.
  5. 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.

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.

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.

Cervical cancer screening includes three steps:

  1. The screening test. This is the first step of the process, aimed at picking up cell changes.
  2. The diagnostic test. If cell changes are found, further tests are needed to diagnose cervical dysplasia.
  3. Treatment of cervical dysplasia (cell changes).

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. 

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

In the future, men living with HIV may be screened for anal cancer.  Additional 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

Most countries have guidelines on cervical cancer screening and these guidelines should be followed. Vaccinated girls are at much lower risk of cervical pre-cancers or cancers than un-vaccinated girls.

Vaccinating your daughter could reduce the number of screenings and potential surgical treatments your daughter and any young women you care about might need. However, even if your daughter has been vaccinated, she will still need to have cervical screening, following the cervical cancer screening policies in your location.

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HPV Facts

Everything you need to know about HPV from people you can trust. Our information is provided by leading scientists global experts in HPV.