We all hope the awkwardness is over after we get our Pap and HPV tests. So hearing that you have tested positive for HPV can be a blow. What happens next?
Well, for one, you’re not alone. Right now, 80 million people in the United States have HPV. What you need to know is that in most cases, your immune system clears the virus before any health problems develop.
The risk for cancer increases if your body cannot fight off the virus for some reason, and it stays in your system.
What is HPV?
HPV stands for human papillomavirus. There are more than 100 strains of the virus, most of them do not cause cancer.
The virus lives on your skin and is spread during intimate genital contact. Because HPV lives on your skin, condoms don’t fully protect you from it.
Some strains cause genital warts in men and women. These warts will usually show up a few months after you are exposed to HPV. They can be treated with prescription medication or removed. If they are left untreated, they may disappear by themselves, or they could grow in size or number.
Other strains of HPV are known as high risk. In women, these strains can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, and anus, as well as head and neck cancers. Almost all cases of cervical cancers are caused by the HPV virus.
What’s an HPV test?
Currently, only women can be screened for HPV in a test normally done alongside a Pap test. MD Anderson recommends women 30 and over get a Pap and HPV test every five years.
Women aged age 21 to 29 should get a Pap test every three years but not an HPV test. This is because the rate of HPV infection is very high in younger women and their immune system is likely strong enough to clear it.
Most women will be able to stop screening at 65, depending on their medical history.
If you get a positive HPV test, your physician has detected one or more high risk strains of the virus on the Pap test of your cervix. If the virus stays with you for a long time, it can cause cell changes that can lead to several types of cancer.
Don’t panic and don’t ignore it
What’s my cancer risk?
Our experts say, the most important thing to know if you have HPV is that the risk of cancer is very small, but should be taken seriously.
“Don’t panic and don’t ignore it,” says Lois Ramondetta, M.D., professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine. “Make sure you follow up with your doctor on the next steps and try to keep things in perspective. If you have HPV, there’s a very good chance it won’t be a long-term problem for you.”
Your immune system will attack the virus and it will likely be gone within two years. Of the millions of cases of HPV diagnosed every year, only a small number become cancer. Most of those cases are cervical cancer.
The other HPV-related cancers are rare. Routine screening is not recommended or available for them.
These cancers are usually found because a lump develops. Dentists are starting to check for oral cancers but are not able to test for HPV and may not be able to see an early cancer. Give your body the best chance of clearing the virus quickly by eating a healthy, well balanced diet and practicing stress reduction techniques.
Do I need additional testing?
If you test positive for HPV and your Pap test is normal, your doctor will most likely recommend you that you repeat the Pap and HPV screening exams in one year.
Once your HPV tests come back negative, continuing with regular, Pap and HPV tests mean any abnormalities that develop later can be found and treated before they become cancer.
If you got a positive HPV test and your Pap test was abnormal, your doctor will probably follow up with a colposcopy. Try to see a physician who specializes in this procedure.
During a colposcopy, your doctor will look more closely at the cervix, vagina or vulva with a special microscope called a colposcope. The doctor is looking for abnormal cells or blood vessels, which may need further treatment.
Talking to your partner
With any medical problem, the natural reaction is to ask, how did this happen? With HPV it can be very difficult to pinpoint when you were exposed, because it's possible that the virus has been in your system for a long time before it was detected. People often never know they have caught it or passed it on.
“HPV could’ve been there for years before it shows up, if it ever does,” says Ramondetta.
When talking to your partner about your diagnosis, remember 80% of people will have HPV at some point in their life.
Your partner can catch it from you. However, he or she has probably already been exposed by you or someone else.
If your partner is a woman, she should be sure to follow screening guidelines and keep up with her own Pap and HPV testing so if a problem does develop, it is found early.
Protect yourself from HPV
The best way to protect yourself from HPV-related cancers is to get the HPV vaccine, which is approved and recommended by MD Anderson for anyone age 9 to 45. The best time to get vaccinated is at age 11-12 before there has been any exposure to HPV. That is when the vaccine is most effective.