Questions About Cancer? 1-800-4-CANCER

Understanding Cervical Changes: A Health Guide for Women

  • Posted: 01/21/2010

What Should I Know About HPV Infection?

How Do Women Get HPV?
How Can I Tell if I Have HPV? And What Can Happen to Me if I Have It?
How Is an HPV Infection Treated?
If I Have HPV and It Goes Away, Can I Get It Again?

How Do Women Get HPV?

Almost all HPV that affects the cervix is spread by sex (through intimate genital to genital contact, including vaginal or anal intercourse, finger to genital contact, and finger to anal contact). Genital HPV infections are very common. The majority of sexually active men and women will get a genital HPV infection at some point in their life. Partners in long-term monogamous relationships may be surprised by the diagnosis of an HPV infection. But because most infections cause no symptoms, they can remain undetected for years. Nevertheless, you are at higher risk of getting a cervical HPV infection if:

  • You have had more than one sex partner, or
  • Your sex partner(s) has had other partners.

For more information about HPV, see the Resources section.

How Can I Tell if I Have HPV? And What Can Happen to Me if I Have It?

Most women with an HPV infection do not know they have it. Most of the time, it does not cause any symptoms. Certain types of HPV can cause warts on the outside of the genitals, but these types do not cause cervical cancer. The only way to know for sure whether you are infected with an HPV type that causes cervical cancer is by seeing your health care provider.

Almost all cervical HPV infections clear up on their own. Many women with HPV infections will have cell changes, at least briefly, within a few months to a year after becoming infected. But most types of HPV do not cause cancer. However, if the HPV is a high risk type and the infection does not go away, you are at higher risk of developing a precancerous change that needs to be treated. It is best to see your health care provider on a regular basis.

“I was really afraid when I found out I have HPV, but talking to the nurse really helped me understand what it is and what we can do about it…”
JESSICA, AGE 28

How Is an HPV Infection Treated?

Although an HPV infection itself cannot be treated, simple treatments that remove or destroy infected cells may prevent cancer. This is why regular pelvic exams and Pap tests are important, along with care for cell changes.

If I Have HPV and It Goes Away, Can I Get It Again?

If you or your partner has HPV, you will share it until your bodies' immune systems get rid of the infections. If you have sex only with each other, you will not pass the HPV virus back and forth. This is because when the HPV goes away, the immune system will "remember" that HPV type and keep you from getting it again. But even though you are protected from one type of HPV, you are not protected from getting other types of HPV.