What Women Should Know About Cervical Cancer and the Human Papilloma Virus

One of the best and proven steps that you can take to prevent a cancer is to have a Pap test.

  • The Pap test looks for changes in the cervix that might lead to cancer.
  • If cancer does occur, the Pap test can find it early when it is easier to treat.
  • Your doctor or nurse can tell you how often you should have a Pap test.

Changes in the cervix are often caused by a virus called human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV infections can lead to cervix cancer.

This booklet has answers to many questions women may have about:

  • Preventing cervix cancer or finding it early
  • Pap tests
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV)
  • HPV tests


The most important message for women is to have regular Pap tests to prevent cancer of the cervix from ever occurring.

There are different types of HPV. This booklet gives information about the type of HPV that causes changes in the cervix. This booklet is not about the type that causes genital warts.


What is cervix cancer?

Cancer of the cervix is cancer that begins in the cervix, the part of the womb (or uterus) that opens to the vagina.

The cervix separates the womb (or uterus) from the vagina.


How common is it?

Cervix cancer is rare in this country today because most women get regular Pap tests.


What is a Pap test?

The Pap test helps doctors find early changes in the cervix cells that might lead to cancer. It is done during a pelvic exam. Abnormal results on a Pap test are common.

With a Pap test, the doctor or nurse takes a sample of cells from the cervix with a swab or soft brush.


Do we know what causes cervix cancer?

Cervix cancer is caused by a virus called HPV.


What is HPV?

HPV is short for human papilloma (pap-ah-LO-mah) virus. This virus can cause changes in the cervix. HPV is not the same as HIV.

HPV is not a new virus, but we are learning more about this virus. Most people who have ever had sex have had HPV at some time in their lives.


How does HPV lead to cervix cancer?

HPV is spread through sex, and it can cause an infection in the cervix. The infection usually doesn’t last very long because your body is able to fight the infection. If the HPV doesn’t go away, the virus may cause cervix cells to change and become pre-cancer cells. Pre-cancer cells are not cancer. Most cells with early pre-cancer changes return to normal on their own. Sometimes, the pre-cancer cells may turn into cancer if they are not found and treated.

Very few HPV infections lead to cervix cancer.


Who can get cervix cancer?

Because HPV is so common, any woman who has ever had sex can get cervix cancer. But, most women who get HPV do not get cervix cancer. Women who have their Pap tests as often as they should are least likely to get cervix cancer.

Some women have a greater chance of getting cervix cancer if they:

  • Have HPV and it doesn’t go away
  • Have HIV or AIDS
  • Smoke

Women who do not have Pap tests at all or who do not have them as often as they should have the greatest chance of getting cervix cancer.


If I’m not having sex, do I still need to get a Pap test?

Yes. Women who were sexually active in the past can still get cervix cancer.


Who can get HPV?

Any man or woman who has ever had sex can get HPV. The virus is spread by sex.


Condoms do not completely protect you from HPV, but are very helpful in protecting you from other infections that can be spread through sex.

Are there any symptoms of HPV?

No. Most people will never know they have HPV. But if the HPV does not go away on its own, it can cause changes in the cervix cells. These changes usually show up on your Pap test.

A doctor uses a microscope to look for cervix cell changes.


How is HPV treated?

There is no treatment for the type of HPV that causes cervix cell changes, but most HPV infections go away without treatment. Antibiotics or other medicines do not treat HPV.

There are treatments for the cell changes in the cervix that HPV can cause. If your Pap test shows cervix changes, your doctor or nurse will discuss these treatments with you, if you need them.

Antibiotics and other medicines do not treat HPV.


Will a Pap test tell me if I have HPV?

A Pap test cannot tell you if you have or had HPV. But it will usually tell you if you have any cervix cell changes that could be caused by HPV. This is the most important information for you and your doctor to know.

No test is perfect: if a Pap test does not find cell changes that are in the cervix, then usually those changes will be found during the next Pap test. So it is important to get regular Pap tests.


Is there a test for HPV? When and how is it done?

Yes, there is a test for HPV called the HPV test. For women who are age 30 or older, the HPV test can be done at the same time as the Pap test, with either the same swab or a second one.

Some women with a certain type of abnormal Pap test will get an HPV test as part of their follow-up. In this case, the age of the woman does not matter.


If I am over 30, should I be tested for HPV when I get my Pap test?

The choice is yours. You may want to know if you have HPV. Some women may not wish to know. You might want to take this brochure with you and ask questions at the time of your next Pap test.

It you have concerns, talk to your doctor or nurse.

If you think you might want to get an HPV test, you can get more information by calling your American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 or going to our Web site at www.cancer.org. We want to help you stay well.

Whether you have an HPV test or not, get your Pap test.


How to prepare for a Pap test

  • Try not to have your Pap test during your menstrual period.
  • It is best if you do not douche or have sex for 2 days before the test.
  • It is best if you do not use tampons, birth control foams, jellies, or other creams or medicines in the vagina for 2 days before the test.

Other resources on HPV and cervix cancer

American Cancer Society


American Social Health Association
National HPV and Cervical Cancer Prevention Resource Center


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

National Cancer Institute


National Cervical Cancer Public Education Campaign

Women’s Cancer Network



  • Most cervix cancer can be prevented. Finding abnormal cell changes early with a Pap test can save your life. Today, cervix cancer is rare in women who get their Pap tests.
  • See a doctor or nurse, and get a Pap test. Ask your doctor or nurse how often you should have your Pap test.
  • HPV is a virus that can lead to cervix cancer.
  • Almost all women who have had sex will have HPV at some time, but very few women will get cervix cancer.
  • Most HPV infections go away without causing cervix changes. HPV does not have any symptoms and cannot be treated. But the cell changes that HPV can cause in the cervix can be treated.
  • HPV that does not go away over many years can lead to cervix cancer.


 By American Cancer Society