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

Research shows that human papillomavirus (HPV) may cause 3% of all cancers in females and 2% of all cancers in males. Cervical cancer is the cancer type that's most commonly associated with HPV. However, most people infected with HPV will never have any symptoms and will not develop cancer.

HPV medical consultation with a gynecologist
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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, who are infected with HPV.

HPV is also responsible for 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

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 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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  4. 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. 

  5. 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. 

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

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

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