For Patients Hot Topics Obstetrics and Gynaecology

HPV and cervical cancer screening: what’s it all about?

Written by Miss Shree Datta for Doctify

HPV, or Human Papilloma Virus is a large family of viruses, with over 100 different strands. It is an STI and is incredibly common, affecting 70-80% of women and can be sexually transmitted but also acquired by genital skin contact. Around 70-80% of men and women have had HPV infection at some stage in their lives, but it’s usually seen in the 20-30 age group. A few variants of HPV are high risk and can cause changes to the neck of your womb (the cervix) or throat and in some cases, lead to cancer over a long period of time. Not all HPV types cause cervical cancer, some can lead to genital warts. Here, we take a look at some of the common questions I get asked about HPV and cervical cancer.

What symptoms do you get with HPV?

You may not have any symptoms from HPV and you may only find out that you have HPV when you have your smear test. If you are infected with HPV, symptoms can depend on the type of HPV you have. If you are infected with low-risk HPV 6 and 11 you may develop genital warts. In some cases, HPV can affect the cells on your cervix, which can result in symptoms such as irregular vaginal bleeding, a change in your vaginal discharge or bleeding after sex.

How do you detect HPV?

HPV is detected on your smear test, so it’s important to attend your smear test. If you’re found to have high-risk HPV, your smear will also be tested for abnormal cells on your cervix and if changes are detected, you may be invited to attend at a Colposcopy clinic for further investigations.

What happens if I’ve got HPV on my smear result?

You’ll be referred for a colposcopy, where we’ll find about your health and examine your cervix using a colposcope. We may also take a small tissue sample (biopsy) at the same time, to check for pre-cancerous cells. This will tell us whether you need further treatment to remove abnormal cells. If that’s the case, we’ll discuss your options with you before planning the next steps, we may be able to remove the abnormal area on your cervix in the clinic and you can go home straight afterwards.

If I have HPV, will I get cervical cancer?

Whilst we can test for HPV, you can’t treat it with antibiotics. Usually, most people can clear an HPV infection over 18-24 months, but sometimes it can take longer. Don’t forget that smoking, stress and other medical conditions can affect how quickly your body can clear HPV so look at your health overall. During this time, we’ll keep you under surveillance by regular cervical smear tests to make sure the cells on your cervix do not change into cancer. This usually takes 10-15 years to develop if untreated or monitored.

What is cervical cancer and can you treat it?

Cervical cancer is a cancer of the neck of your womb. In the early stages, you may not have any symptoms. If you do, you may notice irregular vaginal bleeding – in between your periods or after sex, for example. Some women notice a change in their discharge rather than bleeding. If you’ve gone through menopause you may get some breakthrough bleeding. You may also notice that it’s painful to have sex or develop lower back pain, kidney pain, a change in your bowel and urinary habits, leg swelling or blood in your urine.

If cervical cancer is found early, it can be treated fully using surgery – usually either by removing the abnormal cells or by removing your womb and cervix. You may also need radiotherapy. If it’s diagnosed at later stages, you can often slow down how quickly it spreads.

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