Does a Positive Test for HPV Mean You'll Get Cervical Cancer?

It's probably a good thing HPV testing is becoming more common. However, there are now many women who are trying to understand what it means to be positive for human papillomavirus (HPV).

Unsurprisingly, given the way that the media discusses HPV, women will often assume that a positive diagnosis means they are definitely going to get cervical cancer.

However, that's not the case at all. Research shows that while HPV may cause 3% of all cancers in women and 2% of all cancers in men, very few people with HPV will ever be diagnosed with cancer.

HPV medical consultation with a gynecologist
Voisin / Phanie / Getty Images

What a Positive Result Means

HPV infection is responsible for most, if not all, cervical cancer cases. In the United States there are currently 79 million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s infected with HPV.

HPV is also responsible for genital warts and other forms of cancer in both women and men (including anal cancer). However, most women infected with HPV will never develop warts much less cervical cancer.

In fact, more than 90% of women who receive a positive diagnosis for HPV will clear the infection spontaneously and fully within the span of two years.

Of the remaining 10 percent who are HPV positive, most will eventually clear their infections. Only a small percentage of the rest will go on to develop a significant abnormal Pap smear result, let alone cervical cancer.

Some of the factors associated with HPV persistence include:

  • The strain of HPV involved
  • Whether oral contraceptives are used
  • Whether the woman is an active smoker

If you test positive for HPV, it does indicate a need for regular follow-ups. This is particularly true if you also have an abnormal Pap smear.

A Pap smear screens for early signs of cervical cancer, known as cervical dysplasia. Keeping up to date with your screenings ensure that any abnormal changes can be spotted and treated early, usually with a simple outpatient procedure.

In the end, a positive HPV test is no reason to panic. You may not even need a Pap smear more than once a year. Yes, your risk of getting cervical cancer is higher than someone without an HPV infection, but it is still quite low.

About the HPV Vaccine

There are currently multiple HPV vaccines available on the market. Completing the full vaccine series is one way to significantly reduce your risk of ever becoming infected with HPV.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends HPV vaccination for boys and girls at ages 11 to 12 (and as young as 9). Vaccination is also recommended for anyone up to the age of 26 if not vaccinated already. Those at increased risk can get vaccinated up to the age of 45.

While none of the vaccines protect against all types of HPV, they target the high-risk strains known to cause cancer. These include HPV types 16 and 18, the two strains responsible for 80% of all cervical cancer cases.

Vaccine efficacy has been shown to last for 10 years or more, particularly when the vaccine is given to younger women.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Cancer Institute. HPV and cancer. Updated October 8, 2019.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital HPV infection - fact sheet. Updated August 20, 2019.

  3. Castellsagué, Xavier & Munoz, Nubia. (2003). Chapter 3: Cofactors in human Papillomavirus Carcinogenesis—Role of parity, oral contraceptives, and tobacco smoking. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Monographs. 2003. 20-8. 10.1093/oxfordjournals.jncimonographs.a003477. 

  4. Gargano, J, Meites, Elissa, Watson, M, Unger, E, Markowitz, L. Chapter 5: Human papillomavirus (HPV). In: VPD surveillance manual. Washington DC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2017. 

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccinating boys and girls. Updated August 15, 2019.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV vaccine safety and effectiveness. Updated November 22, 2016.

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