About human papillomavirus (HPV)
About 4 out of 5 adults will have HPV at some time in their lives. It is spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact and any sexual activity. While HPV often clears up by itself, it can stay dormant in your system and may not be detected until years after you come into contact with it. If found in a test, this may not be due to a new exposure with HPV. This is why regular, ongoing screening is still important even if you have been with the same partner, or not been sexually active for sometime.
People with HPV usually:
- do not have symptoms
- do not know they have it
- have no problems or complications.
There are many different types of HPV, and some are more likely than others to lead to cervical cancer.
The body is pretty good at clearing the virus itself, usually within 2 years, especially in people under 30. However, sometimes it can persist and may develop into cervical cancer over time. 95% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV.
Having HPV does not mean you have cancer.
Grades of cervical cell changes
Cell changes on the cervix happen very slowly. There are many stages between HPV infection, cell changes and cancer.
About cervical cancer
Cervical cancer starts in the cells lining the cervix. This is triggered by cell changes usually caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Cervical cancer can take 10 years or more to develop.
The cell changes caused by HPV may return to normal by themselves. In a small number of cases they develop into cancer if left untreated.
It is impossible to tell which abnormal cells will return to normal, and which may go on to become cancer. That is why regular screening tests are so important.
Types of cervical cancer
The 2 main types of cervical cancer are:
- squamous cell cancer — forms in the cells where the vagina meets the cervix
- glandular cell cancer — forms in the glandular cells that line the cervical canal.
Squamous cell cancer is found in about 80% of people with cervical cancer, and glandular in 15%.
Cervical cancer symptoms
Cell changes themselves do not usually cause any symptoms, and some symptoms may only appear once they become cancer. Regular cervical screening helps to find these changes early, so treatment can be provided before cancer develops.
Visit your doctor or nurse if you notice anything unusual, like:
- bleeding or spotting between periods or after your periods have stopped (after menopause)
- pain during sex
- bleeding or spotting after sex
- vaginal discharge that is not normal for you
- persistent pain in your pelvis or lower back.
These symptoms can happen for many reasons. They rarely mean you have cervical cancer. However, it is still important to get them checked out by a health professional.
Risk factors for cervical cancer
Risk factors for developing cervical cancer include:
- having HPV that does not clear up
- not being immunised against HPV.
Other gynaecological cancers
There are 4 other types of gynaecological cancers that are currently not screened for:
You can learn more about other types of cancers on:
With HPV immunisation and HPV testing, Aotearoa New Zealand aims to eliminate cervical cancer in the future.
Preventing cervical cancer
Cervical cancer often takes 10 or more years to develop. With regular screening, abnormal cells can be found and treated early before they become cancer.
The HPV screening test is able to pick up cell changes very early. Most people will only need to have an HPV screening test every 5 years.
The HPV vaccine
Regular cervical screening, along with immunisation against HPV, is the best protection against cervical cancer.
Find out about the vaccine, who needs it and when to get it on the Te Whatu Ora Immunise website.