All about cervical cancer, how HPV can be transmitted and how to prevent it
Sex, HPV and cervical cancer
99.7% of cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are more than 40 different strains of HPV that are transmitted through sexual contact and the vast majority of people will have HPV at some point in their lives.
Most infections don’t cause symptoms, and your body’s immune system fights the virus off without you ever knowing you had it.
Some strains of HPV can cause genital or anal warts. These strains do not lead to cervical cancer.
Other strains of the virus can lead to cervical cancer. Over 70% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV types 16 and 18, which are covered by the HPV vaccine. There are other strains that can cause cervical cancer, so it’s important to get screened even if you’ve had the vaccine. People who are HIV positive are at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer from HPV.
It’s important to remember that most people with a cervix who have HPV clear the virus and don’t develop cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer.
How will I know if I have HPV?
HPV doesn’t usually show any signs or symptoms, meaning you probably won’t know when you have it. Most people with a cervix are diagnosed with HPV as a result of an abnormal Pap test or through the new Cervical Screening Test.
If you have a strain that causes genital or anal warts, you might develop warts at some point, but the strains of HPV that cause warts sometimes don't have symptoms either.
(Remember that the strains of HPV that can cause cancer do not cause warts - and the strains that cause warts do not cause cancer.)
The first sign of warts are growths or lumps in the genital and/or anal area which can appear up to 3-12 months after first getting HPV. The warts are usually painless and will often disappear on their own without treatment.
There is no cure for the HPV virus itself. However, genital and anal warts can be treated if and when they pop up. Without treatment, warts can stay the same, go away on their own, or get worse. Whether or not you treat them is totally up to you (the warts themselves are completely harmless). However, if left untreated, warts can increase in numbers and become harder to get rid of.
Doctors can prescribe special paints or creams that can remove warts, and sometimes doctors will freeze or burn the warts. However, warts can come back. Sometimes, several treatments are needed before they go away completely.
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How did I get HPV? How can I protect my partners?
HPV can be transmitted through any kind of sexual contact, including vaginal/front hole sex, anal sex, oral sex, genital skin-to-skin contact, fingering, fisting or sharing sex toys.
The virus can be inactive in a person’s cells for months or years and often has no symptoms, making it practically impossible to determine when and from whom HPV was contracted.
Using condoms (including on sex toys) and gloves (for fingering and fisting) when you’re having sex can reduce the risk of HPV, but since it’s so easily transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, they’re not 100% effective.
If you're in NSW, Austalia, ACON provides free safe sex supplies, including gloves, condoms and lube, to LGBTIQ people (posted anywhere in NSW). Order online here.
The best thing you can do is to ask your partner if they’ve had the Gardasil vaccine, chat with them about using condoms and gloves (and lube!) and encourage every single person with a cervix to get cervical screening.
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Does everyone with HPV get cervical cancer?
No. Most people’s immune systems fight off the virus (usually within about 1 – 2 years), with no effect on their health at all.
For people who don’t clear “high-risk” types of HPV, the infection can develop into cervical cancer. In most cases, the development of cervical cancer can take 10 or more years, however in rare cases it can happen more quickly. This is why early detection is so important.
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What does the Gardasil / Cervarix vaccine do?
The Gardasil vaccine is now available to all students aged 12-13 as part of the school-based National HPV Vaccination Program.
It vaccinates against HPV types 16 and 18, which cause 70% of all cervical cancers and 90% of all HPV-related anal cancers, as well as protecting against HPV types 6 and 11 which cause 90% of genital warts.
Some people may have had Cervarix which only protects against HPV types 16 and 18.
A new vaccine, Garadsil 9, will be available in schools in Australia in 2018. It will protect against 9 strains of HPV, including the ones covered by the older version of Garadsil. The types of HPV that Garadsil 9 protects against cause around 90% of cervical cancers.
The vaccines do not protect against all types of HPV, so regular cervical screening is still important even if you’re vaccinated!
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How can I prevent cervical cancer?
Almost 80% of cervical cancers occur in people who have never been screened or who are not up-to-date with their cervical screening, so the best way to prevent cervical cancer is to get routine Cervical Screening Tests.
Not smoking is another way to reduce the risk of cervical cancer. People with a cervix who smoke are more likely than non-smokers to get cervical cancer. Smoking exposes the body to many cancer-causing chemicals which are absorbed through the lungs and carried into the bloodstream. Smoking also makes the immune system less effective in fighting HPV infections and can damage the cells of the cervix.
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