HPV and Cervical Cancer

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the name of a widespread group of viruses. Most people get some form of HPV in their lifetime through direct skin-to-skin contact in the genital area (not just penetrative sex). In most cases, our body will fight off HPV without causing problems. However, some types of HPV can cause cancer.

The discovery that cervical cancer is caused by HPV in more than 99% of cases facilitated the early detection of cervical cancer. Currently, the sample cells removed from the cervix are tested for HPV instead of looking for abnormal cells, as in the past.

What do your results mean?

  • Negative result for HPV: Most people would not show the virus on the test. That means your risk of getting cervical cancer is very low. You do not need further testing and will be invited to repeat the preventive test every 3 to 5 years.
  • Positive result for HPV: If HPV is found in your sample, the same instance will be examined under a microscope to see if HPV caused abnormal cell changes.
  • If HPV is found, but there are no abnormal cells: you will be invited to repeat the preventive test annually. It will check that your immune system has cleared the virus.
  • If HPV is found and there are abnormal cells at any time during the test preventive or during the annual review, you will be directed to make a Colposcopy.

Colposcopy is a more detailed medical examination because it uses an instrument to enlarge the cervix. The doctor will let you know the severity of the abnormal cells and discuss some treatments that can be done during the Colposcopy. Treatment can use freezing, burning, laser, or removal techniques.

HPV vaccination

Since 2008, girls between 12 and 13 have been vaccinated against HPV. The vaccine is most effective in young people and is now offered to boys as well. The vaccine protects against the four most common types of HPV that are known to cause cervical cancer. The vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV, meaning that girls who have received the HPV vaccine still need to be screened starting at age 25.


Pap smears and HPV vaccination are highly effective in preventing cervical cancer. However, the most recent figures suggest that only 70.2% of those eligible are up to date with screening and 76.7% are vaccinated.

The main barrier for women to be proactive in cervical health care is the embarrassment caused by speculum examination. NHS England is currently testing speculum-free sampling approaches and vaginal self-sampling to decrease discomfort during the exam. In the meantime, we must continue to talk about cervical cancer risks. Overcoming the embarrassment and stigma associated with this clinical trial will be critical to improving women’s health and lives.