Published on May 26, 2022

A teen with a bandage on her arm.

HPV vaccination and screenings can ease concerns about cervical cancer

Human papillomaravirus infection, also known as HPV, is the leading cause of cervical cancer in women. The best way to prevent cervical cancer is through early vaccination for HPV and routine health screenings.

HPV is a relatively common virus acquired through sexual activity. People who contract it may not know they are infected. People can contract it multiple times, which may put them at greater potential risk for cancer.

Not all individuals who become infected with HPV experience serious health problems. Some may develop genital warts without additional symptoms. But others may have more significant issues. Some types of HPV have been linked to cancer of the penis, cervix, vagina, vulva, anus, mouth and throat. Early detection of cancer is key as it can be life threatening.

It is important for children to be vaccinated against HPV as the vaccine is most effective before people become sexually active. Early vaccination has proven to be up to 100% effective in preventing HPV. In fact, studies have shown it to be 93% to 100% effective in girls, and 97% to 100% effective in boys.

Primary care physicians can provide HPV vaccination information, along with vaccinations and health screenings for HPV and cervical cancer. Vaccination is recommended for both girls and boys because HPV is transmitted between people and can also cause cancer in males.

"The best time for HPV vaccination in girls and boys is before the age of 12, and as early as age 9," said Rowena Papson, MD, a family medicine physician with ProHealth Medical Group.

"Vaccination can also be effectively provided through age 25. Fewer shots are needed when vaccination occurs before age 13."

Cervical cancer commonly develops over time and cervical cancer symptoms can be mild or unnoticeable.

Women can be screened for cervical cancer and HPV in the doctor’s office. The screenings, known as a Pap test and an HPV test, take less than five minutes to perform during a scheduled visit.

The tests are very quick and painless. More important, they can relieve concerns and also allow for early intervention if cancer cells are found.

Cells from the Pap test are examined in a laboratory by a pathologist and the results are provided to the patient’s doctor.

Unlike tests that have clearly defined positive or negative results, cervical cells tested for cancer can sometimes appear to be abnormal but may or may not be cancerous. When the pathology report indicates a non-specific finding, research-based guidelines outline the next step in testing and diagnosis. In some cases, a cervical biopsy may be needed.

Cervical cancer screening for women should start at age 21. If a patient’s Pap test shows no signs of cervical cancer, a woman should be screened for cervical cancer only every three years until she is 65. After that, she would need cervical cancer screening only as recommended by her health care provider.

In addition to a Pap test, women ages 30 to 49 should have an HPV test every five years, unless the test finds HPV.

If a patient’s Pap test does not show any signs of cancer but it does find HPV, it is recommended that she return to the doctor for both tests in a year’s time.

The best way to prevent cervical cancer is to be vaccinated for HPV and schedule routine screenings with your provider. Most people have little to no reaction to the HPV vaccine other than some redness and possible discomfort at the site of the shot.