The Slow Journey from HPV Infection to Cervical Cancer

Healthy cervical cells as seen under a microscope. Image: National Cancer Institute

Healthy cervical cells as seen under a microscope. Image: National Cancer Institute

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. The biggest threat to cervical health is human papillomavirus, or HPV, a virus that is transmitted through a wide variety of sexual activities. If you haven’t yet been sexually active, the best thing you can do to protect cervical health (whether you have a cervix or not) is to be vaccinated against HPV. If you have been sexually active, the vaccine could still be effective, assuming you haven’t already been infected with the strains of HPV against which it protects. And, if you are, or have been, sexually active and have a cervix, it is important to be screened with regular Pap tests (also called Pap smears). When caught in its precancerous stages, cervical cancer can be avoided.


HPV may be tiny, but it packs a punch.


There are more than 100 strains of HPV, approximately 40 of which can be sexually transmitted; of these, 18 strains are thought to cause cancer. Chronic infections by cancer-causing HPV strains, such as HPV-16 and HPV-18 (which together are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers), can lead to the development of abnormal cells, which might eventually become cancerous.

In the United States, HPV is the most widespread sexually transmitted disease — 6 million Americans are infected with HPV annually, although most are asymptomatic and unaware they were infected. For most people, the infection clears up within 8 to 13 months, while for others, the infection can lurk undetected. If you are unlucky enough to develop a chronic HPV infection, then you are at increased risk for certain cancers — depending on the site of the infection, HPV can cause cancers of the cervix, anus, and other genitals, as well as the throat. Continue reading