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

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the U.S. - infecting almost every sexually active person at some point in their lifetime. Approximately 150 different strains of HPV have been identified, and those associated with cancer are collectively called the "high-risk" strains.

Cervical cancer is the cancer type that's most commonly associated with HPV, but research has suggested as many as 3% and 2% of all cancers in women and men, respectively, are caused by HPV.

Most people infected with HPV will never have any symptoms and will not develop cancer - learn more about HPV and cancer risk below.

HPV medical consultation with a gynecologist
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What a Positive Result Means

In 2018 the United States recorded 43 million new HPV infections - many among people in their late teens and early 20s. Knowing your HPV status is critical for ensuring you and your health provider can keep tabs on your relative risk for cancer.

HPV infection is responsible for most, if not all, cervical cancer cases. HPV can also cause genital warts and other forms of cancer in both females and males (including anal cancer).

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% who are HPV positive, most will eventually clear their infections. Only a small percentage of the rest will go on to develop an abnormal Pap smear result.

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
  • Weakened immune system

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. Your risk of getting cervical cancer could be higher than someone without an HPV infection, but the risk is still quite low.

About the HPV Vaccine

There is currently just one HPV vaccine - Gardasil 9 - available on the market in the U.S. 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 the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV, it does target many strains, including 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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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Infections Treatment Guidelines, 2021. MMWR. Published July 23, 2021.

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

  3. National Cancer Institute. HPV and cancer. Last reviewed January 22, 2021.

  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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