HPV Infection: Does it cause Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in Indian women and the second leading cancer worldwide. 
Human papillomavirus also referred to as HPV contributes to nearly all cases of cervical cancer.

What is HPV?

HPV is a sexually transmitted viral infection. Different types of HPV infection infects the cells lining and skin inside the body. A small number of these infected cells can progress into cervical cancer or other forms of cancer, including vaginal, anal, vulvar, and oropharyngeal.

Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-related disease and occurs in the cells of the cervix, which is found in the lower part of the uterus, connected to the vagina. Cervical cancer can take several years to develop even after contracting HPV infection.

Symptoms of HPV

Most HPV infections may not present with any symptoms. But, common symptoms of some types of HPV infection are warts. There are several types of warts linked to different types of HPV infection. The most common warts associated with HPV that can lead to cancer, are genital warts.

Genital warts are tiny bumps, stem-like protrusions, or clusters of bumps that can be found on the female genital area known as the vulva. They can also be found on the penis or scrotum in men.

HPV Causes

The HPV infection enters the body through a small tear in the skin, maybe from a cut or abrasion. HPV is primarily transferred through sexual intercourse, anal sex, and other direct skin-to-skin contacts. Oral sex can also lead to upper respiratory lesions on the tongue, tonsils, larynx, or even your nose, causing oral cancer.

How does HPV lead to cervical cancer?

There are hundreds of HPV strains that can affect different parts of your body, and although most of them will clear up naturally, some can cause cervical cancer.

The HPV infections related to cancer, affect the cells lining the surface of the cervix and can change their structure, growth rate, and regular functioning, increasing the chances of developing cancer. 

Undetected or untreated persistent HPV leads to an uncontrollable growth of abnormal cells in the cervix, taking approximately 10-15 years to cause cervical cancer. 

Reducing your chances of getting HPV

Early HPV prevention starts with three routine HPV vaccinations given to girls and boys between the ages of 9-15 before they become sexually active and before exposure to HPV.

The HPV vaccines protect against high-risk oncogenic types of HPV linked to cervical cancer and genital warts in both males and females.

The HPV vaccine has been proven to be highly effective and safe in preventing persistent HPV infection. 

Another effective method for the prevention of HPV related cervical cancer is post-coital ( after intercourse) genital cleaning with water. This simple step goes a long way in cervical cancer prevention. 

Using hygienic intercourse practices like using condoms, avoiding multiple sexual partners, and avoiding unnatural sexual practices help in decreasing HPV infection. 

Cervical cancer can go undetected for a long time, so it is essential that women, especially sexually active women, get regular cervical screenings or Pap tests.

The advantage of cervical cancer screening is it allows for the detection of precancerous cells or cancerous cells at an early stage when it can be easily treated. It is extremely common for women to not experience any symptoms until cancer has advanced. Therefore, regular screening is recommended, especially for women aged 30+.

There are three types of screening tests:

  • HPV Testing – This test detects the presence of HPV, which can cause cervical cancer and is usually done at the same time as a Pap test. A small sample of cells is collected from the cervix to be checked for abnormalities.
  • Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid (VIA) – This private exam, performed by your doctor, involves applying a diluted mixture of vinegar and acetic. Abnormal tissue will appear white temporarily when exposed to vinegar.
  • Pap Test and Liquid-Based Cytology (LBC) – A Pap test also involves collecting a small sample of cells from the cervix (more specifically, the cervix canal). LBC is an alternate technique used to test the sample for precancerous or cancerous cells.

Key Facts About HPV Infection and Cervical Cancer

  • HPV can infect anyone sexually active.
  • Often no symptoms occur, and some types of HPV infection can resolve on their own.
  • High-risk HPV infections can present as genital warts.
  • HPV vaccines are safe and highly effective.
  • HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer in women.
  • Cervical cancer can take 10-15 years to develop.
  • Regular cervical screening tests, including Pap tests and HPV testing, should be done, especially for women aged 30 or older.
  • There are hundreds of different HPV infection strains. Not all cause cancer.
  • Genital warts left untreated can cause cancer later on.
  • HPV can cause cancers like oral, vaginal, anal, and others.
  • Practice safe sex if you are sexually active to reduce the chances of contracting HPV.

In conclusion

HPV infection is the leading cause of cervical cancer. It is a widespread infection, and taking preventative measures is vital to ensure the virus can not cause more serious problems. 

Women who are sexually active or have multiple sexual partners are at higher risk of contracting HPV, which can lead to cervical cancer.

Cervical screening tests are essential and can help women detect precancerous or cancerous cells early on. 

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