By Ellen Embry, M.D.
Obstetrics/Gynecology, Rush Copley Medical Group
Genital HPV infection is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). Human papillomavirus is the name of a group of viruses that includes more than 100 different strains or types. More than 30 of these viruses are sexually transmitted, and they can infect the genital area of men and women including the skin of the penis, vulva or anus, and the linings of the vagina, cervix or rectum. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 20 million people are currently infected with HPV.
All types of HPV can cause slight Pap test abnormalities that do not have serious consequences. About a third of the identified genital HPV types can lead, in rare cases, to development of cervical cancer. A Pap test can detect pre-cancerous and cancerous cells on the cervix.
Studies suggest that whether a woman develops cervical cancer depends on a variety of factors acting together with high-risk HPVs. Having many sexual partners is a risk factor for HPV infection. Factors that may increase the risk of cervical cancer in women with HPV infection include smoking and having many children. Although most HPV infections go away on their own without causing any type of abnormality, infection with high-risk HPV types increases the chance that mild abnormalities will progress to more severe abnormalities or cervical cancer.
Regular Pap testing and careful follow-up, with treatment if needed, can help ensure that precancerous changes in the cervix caused by HPV infection do not develop into life threatening cervical cancer. Pap tests are important to receive on a yearly basis and responsible for greatly reducing deaths from cervical cancer.