Pap and HPV tests are part of life for women over 30, with doctors recommending a test every five years, but many remain unclear what HPV is and why it is important to be treated if you have it.
HPV stands for human papillomavirus, something one in four people will contract in their lives. It is a virus with more than 100 variants, most of which can be dealt with by your own immune system, however there are variants that can be more of a problem. Men can be infected with HPV too, however there are no tests for male HPV, and so symptoms such as genital warts can be the first sign of problem for men.
HPV lives on the skin, and is transmitted through intimate genital contact, with those that cause genital warts considered low risk issues that can be treated with medication. However, there are other forms, known as high-risk HPVs, that if left untreated can over time, turn normal cells into cancerous ones.
In particular, nearly all cases of cervical cancer of any kind are caused by HPV infection, with around 70% of cases coming from HPV-16 or HPV-18. In addition, oral cancers, as well as less common cancers including penile, vaginal, anal and vulvar cancers can all be caused by variations of the HPV infection.
It is important to note that even with a positive identification of an HPV infection, the risk of that becoming cancer is extremely small. In most cases, HPV can be treated and managed and not be an issue for you in the long term. However, if you are diagnosed with a high-risk form of HPV, then it is important to discuss things with your doctor. Even in these higher risk infections, the chances of it becoming cancer remain small.