HPV, Cervical Cancer and Cervical Cancer Screening: What Do You Need to Know?

by Lillian Whitaker

Medically reviewed by Nancy Berman, MSN

Infection with high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV), the cause of cervical cancer, is common. By the age of 50, 80% of women will have had an HPV infection with one or more of 14 high-risk HPV types. Most infections are cleared within 24 months. If the virus isn't cleared and persists, cells may become moderately or severely abnormal (also called pre-cancer). The purpose of screening by Pap and/or HPV testing is to find and then treat pre-cancer to prevent cancer from occurring.

Get the answers to these commonly asked questions about HPV, cervical cancer and cervical cancer screening.

Do I need a Pap or HPV test if I don’t have symptoms?

Yes. Infection of the cervix with HPV does not cause symptoms and having screening by HPV testing and/or Pap testing is the only way to know if the virus is present or whether cells are abnormal. Even if you have cervical cancer, you may not have symptoms until the disease is more advanced. Screening tests are the key to finding abnormal cell changes in otherwise-healthy people. You should not wait until you have symptoms to get screened.

If I’m not having sex, do I need to get screened for HPV?

Yes. HPV is a skin cell virus that can be spread through skin-to-skin contact, and the most common way the virus gets to the cervix is through male to female intercourse. Women who have sex with women can also get HPV and should follow the same guidelines for screening as the general population. Using condoms can lower your risk of getting HPV and HPV-related diseases, but they do not get rid of the risk completely, since condoms do not cover the entire genital area. Also, you still need to be screened for HPV if you’re not currently sexually active. HPV testing is meant to find old infections that were never cleared, because the risk for cells to become abnormal increases the longer the virus stays in the cells.

If I got the HPV vaccine, do I need to be screened for cervical cancer?

Yes. Current vaccines protect against nine types of HPV, and seven of those can cause cancer. Despite this, the vaccines do not protect against all types that cause cervical cancer. Therefore, it is still important for vaccinated people who have a cervix to be routinely screened for cervical cancer.

If cervical cancer doesn’t run in my family, do I need to be concerned about HPV and cancer?

Yes. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that is commonly spread through vaginal, anal or oral sex and is not directly affected by family history, so a lack of a family history of cervical cancer is also not a predictor of cervical cancer or HPV status and is not a reason to skip screening. HPV is so common that almost every sexually active person will get it at some time in their life. This is why getting vaccinated is so important.

Does your sex affect your likelihood of getting HPV?

No. Both men and women can contract HPV, but there are currently no FDA-approved tests to screen for HPV in men. According to the CDC, most sexually active men and women will have at least one HPV infection at some point in their lives and any person who has close, skin-to-skin contact with another person who has an HPV infection can get the infection as well.

Is there a difference between the Pap test and the HPV test?

Yes. Pap tests (also called pap smears) specifically look for abnormal cells or pre-cancer in the cervix caused by HPV. If not treated, these abnormal cells could progress to cervical cancer. The HPV test specifically looks for high-risk types of HPV. The Pap test and HPV test can be done together (called a co-test) or they can each be done alone as part of your cervical cancer screening.

If I have an abnormal Pap test, does that mean I have or will get cervical cancer?

No. When a Pap test comes back as “abnormal,” this means that the appearance of cells in the sample shows changes that are graded as mild, moderate or severely abnormal. A positive HPV test only means that you have the virus that can cause cervical cancer — not that it has or definitely will. HPV is so common that almost every sexually active person will get it at some time in their life. Most people will clear the virus from their bodies naturally and few will go on to develop cancer.

If I’m in menopause, am I too old to get screened for cervical cancer?

No. Unfortunately, cervical cancer may still be a concern for people who are older than 65. You should speak with your healthcare provider (HCP) about how often you should get screened and until what age. Current recommendations allow women who have been adequately screened and have not had any abnormal screening in the previous 10 years to stop screening at age 65. Women who have been treated for pre-cancer or cancer need follow-up for 25 years after, regardless of their age.

Will my HCP call me to tell me if I have HPV or an abnormal Pap test?

Most likely. Many HCPs will contact you if you receive an abnormal result. However, if you don't hear from your HCP within a few weeks, call and ask for your test results. Make sure you receive your results and understand any follow-up visits or treatments that might be necessary.

If I’ve only had one sexual partner, do I still need to be screened for HPV?

Yes. HPV can be contracted even if you’ve only had one partner. Nearly 20 million Americans get a sexually transmitted infection (STI) each year — and it’s not only people who have multiple partners, sex outside of marriage or a different lifestyle who are at risk. Anyone who is sexually active or ever has been sexually active is at risk of having HPV, and screening is important no matter how many partners you’ve had.