What is HPV anyway?
HPV is short for human papillomavirus. Many women understand that a routine pap smear is a screening process for HPV, and yet very few know exactly what HPV is. HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses. Each HPV virus in this large group is given a number which is called its HPV type. HPV is the virus that causes abnormal cervical screening/smear tests and in a very small number of women cervical cancer.
Though there are many different types of HPV, there are only 15 types that the World Health Organization has identified as ‘high-risk subtypes’, which are most likely to cause cancers. Though these numbers may seem a little frightening, by the age of 50, 90-100% of women will have been infected. But don’t panic!
What’s the deal?
The fact of the matter is that HPV is extremely common, but in most cases the immune system clears the infection oftentimes in as little as a few days. Although in some cases, the immune system may take a few years to clear it. If HPV persists for an extended period of time and begins to cause change in the cells, your cervical cells can help it to survive. It’s these cellular changes that your gynaecologist is looking for in a smear test. If HPV lingers for too long, it can, unfortunately, cause very severe abnormalities, which may eventually turn into cervical cancer.
So now what?
From getting the first infection however, a high-risk situation usually takes at least 10-15 years to manifest. If you’re in this very small minority of women, you will have been invited for between three to five cervical smears during which we would detect these abnormal cells and be able to treat you before they every turned into cancer. This means attending for your smear test is the single most effective way of preventing cervical cancer.
When it comes down to it, though HPV does sound a little scary, it’s often not something to lose sleep over! Though as they say; “it’s better to be safe than sorry” so be sure to book your routine pap smear if you are due!