Frequently Asked Questions

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What is HPV?
Who gets cervical cancer?
Do condoms prevent the spread of HPV?
How do I know if I have HPV?
Is there a test for HPV?
Can HPV be treated?
What is a Pap Test? What’s the difference between a Pap test and an HPV test?
How should I prepare for my cervical cancer screening tests?
Can cervical cancer be treated?
When do I need to see a specialist?
Do I need a Pap test if I’ve had a hysterectomy?

FAQs

What is HPV?

HPV is a family of very common viruses that cause almost all cervical cancers, plus a variety of other problems like common warts, genital warts and plantar warts. HPV also causes cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, and cancers of the head and neck. Women and men become infected with HPV types that cause cervical cancer through sexual intercourse and sexual contact. Most women will be exposed to HPV during their lifetime.

The most common cancer-causing types of the virus are 16 and 18. This is important to know because these two types alone cause about 70% of all cervical cancer. The cervical cancer vaccine protects against these two types 100% of the time.

Women and men become infected with HPV types that cause cervical cancer through sexual intercourse and sexual contact. Most women and men will be exposed to HPV during their lifetime.

An HPV infection rarely leads to cervical cancer. In most women, the cells in the cervix return to normal after the body’s immune system destroys the HPV infection. However, in some women, the HPV infection remains and causes changes in the body’s cells. If these abnormal cells are not found and treated, they may become cancer.

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Who gets cervical cancer?

Since almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, any woman who has sex can get cervical cancer. Most women who’ve had sex have been exposed to HPV at some time in their life. The women at highest risk for cervical cancer are women in whom infection with one of the high-risk types persists for years. Other risk factors for cervical cancer include smoking, multiple sexual partners and HIV infection.

Cervical cancer occurs most often in certain groups of women in the United States including African-American women, Hispanic women, white (non-Hispanic) women living in rural New York State and northern New England, American Indian women, and Vietnamese-American women. Hispanic women have twice the rate of cervical cancer compared to non-Hispanic white women. African-American women develop this cancer about 50% more than non-Hispanic white women. These disparities are due, in part, from poor access to health care. The women who are most at risk for the disease are women who do not have regular check-ups that include Pap tests.

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Do condoms prevent the spread of HPV?

Recent studies suggest that regular condom use provides some protection against the HPV infection. However, since condoms do not cover all areas that can be the source of the spread of HPV, they do not offer complete protection. Also, occasional use of condoms was not shown to offer any protection from HPV. To realize protection from HPV infection, you must be committed to using condoms every time you have sex until you are in a committed relationship.

However, condoms do reduce the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted disease when used all the time and in the right way.

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How do I know if I have HPV?

In most cases, you won’t have any symptoms of an HPV infection. The only way to know if you have an HPV infection is to have a direct test for the virus which is performed right from the Pap test container or by using an additional swab at the time of the Pap test. The only way to tell if a high-risk HPV infection has caused the cells in your cervix to change is to have a Pap test. Signs of an HPV infection may appear weeks, months or years after the first infection, which is why it is important to have regular tests.

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Is there a test for HPV?

Yes, there is an HPV test that can detect high-risk types of HPV that can cause changes in your cervical cells. However, this test cannot tell you the exact type of high-risk HPV. Women 30 years of age and older can have both the Pap test and the HPV test for cervical cancer screening. The HPV test can also be used to help understand the meaning of a borderline abnormal Pap test. In that situation, your health care provider may do an HPV test to find out more about the abnormal cells. However, if your Pap test shows a definite pre-cancerous abnormality, an HPV test is not needed. Virtually all of these changes are caused by HPV.

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Can HPV be treated?

Currently, there is no treatment for the virus. There are treatments for the cervical changes that HPV can cause. If your Pap and HPV tests show that cells in your cervix have changed, you should discuss treatment options with your doctor.

Girls and women age 9-26 can protect themselves from HPV and cervical changes related to HPV by getting the cervical cancer vaccine. For more information about the vaccine see Cervical Cancer Vaccine Basics.

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What is a Pap Test? What’s the difference between a Pap test and an HPV test?

Healthcare providers use the Pap test to see if there are any cell changes in the cervix. The Pap test looks at a sample brushed off your cervix to see if there are any cells that are abnormal. The Pap test is a good way to find cancer cells and cells that might become cancerous in the future. The Pap test can be performed as a normal part of a routine pelvic exam.

The HPV test checks directly for high-risk viruses. Both the Pap and HPV tests use a small, soft brush to collect cervical cells. The cells are sent to a lab where they are examined under a microscope. Whether you have both tests or the Pap test alone, you won’t notice any difference in your exam.

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How do you know if you have cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer, or early cervical pre-cancers, often have no signs or symptoms. That’s why it’s important to get Pap tests regularly. If you have any of these symptoms, call your health care provider right away.

  • Any unusual discharge from the vagina
  • Blood spots or light bleeding when you’re not having your period
  • Bleeding or pain during sex

Just because you have these symptoms, doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer. You can have these symptoms for other reasons. Check with your health care provider to find out what’s causing your symptoms. Finding cervical cancer early means you have a better chance of successful treatment.

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How should I prepare for my cervical cancer screening tests?

  • Don’t take the tests if you’re having your menstrual period.
  • Don’t douche for 2 days before the tests.
  • Don’t have sexual intercourse for 2 days before the test.
  • Don’t use tampons or birth control foams, jellies, or other vaginal creams or vaginal medicines for 2 days before the test.

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Can cervical cancer be treated?

Yes, cervical cancer can be treated with surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy. If you have cervical cancer, discuss treatment options with your doctor to decide the best way to treat the cancer.

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When do I need to see a specialist?

If you have cervical cancer, you’ll likely be treated by one or more of the following specialists: a gynecologic oncologist, a radiation oncologist and a medical oncologist. An oncologist is a doctor specially trained in diagnosing and treating cancer.

If you have been diagnosed with precancerous changes, it’s not essential that you see an oncologist. Depending on the degree of the change seen, your gynecologist or your primary care doctor may monitor your condition and provide treatment.

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Do I need a Pap test if I’ve had a hysterectomy?

The answer to this question depends on why you had a hysterectomy.

  • If you had a hysterectomy to treat cervical cancer, you should continue to have regular Pap tests to make sure the cancer hasn’t come back.
  • If you had a hysterectomy to treat pre-cancerous changes in your cervix, you should continue to have regular tests for at least a few years after the surgery.
  • If you had a hysterectomy where your cervix was not removed (called a subtotal or supracervical hysterectomy), you should have regular tests until you are at least 70 years old. Since your cervix wasn’t removed, there is still a chance you could develop cervical cancer.
  • If you had a total hysterectomy (the entire uterus, including the cervix was removed) for a reason other than cancer or pre-cancer, you may not need to have the Pap or HPV test any more. Check with your doctor first, since some conditions may mean that you should continue to be tested.
  • If you had a hysterectomy and have an immune system disease (such as AIDS) or are taking medicines that suppress your immune system (such as after a kidney transplant), you may be more likely to develop problems from an HPV infection. You should be tested regularly.

Many women don’t know why they had a hysterectomy or what kind of hysterectomy they had. If you go to a new health care provider after the surgery, bring whatever records you might still have from your surgery. With records and an examination he or she will be able to tell what kind of hysterectomy you had, and whether or not you need to continue to have Pap tests.

You should discuss your situation and your risk factors for HPV infection with your health care provider. No matter what you decide about the Pap and HPV tests, you should continue to have regular pelvic exams.

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A Few Things to Remember

  • The single most important thing that a woman can do is to participate in a regular screening program. All women who are screened experience a dramatic reduction in the risk of cervical cancer compared to women who do not get tested. Make you appointment today!
  • Most cervical cancer is preventable. Early vaccination plus detection of abnormal cell changes with a Pap test are important. Cervical cancer is rare, and almost always prevented through regular screening and treatment of pre-cancerous changes.
  • At least 75% of women will have HPV at some point, but very few will develop cervical cancer. Most HPV infections are temporary and will go away on their own. An HPV infection that does not go away over a period of years might lead to cervical cancer.
  • The new screening options including liquid-based Pap tests and the test for high-risk HPV are important developments for women and their physicians. The HPV vaccine will prevent many Pap test abnormalities and most cervical cancer.
  • If you are a girl or woman between 9-26 years of age, you should be vaccinated against HPV. Remember, just because you have had the vaccine does not mean you should stop having Pap tests. Early vaccination and regular screening provides your best protection against cervical cancer.

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