How does HPV cause cervical cancer?

Answers from Mary M. Gallenberg, M.D.

When a woman is exposed to genital human papillomavirus (HPV), her immune system usually prevents the virus from doing serious harm. But in a small number of women, the virus survives for years. Eventually, the virus can lead to the conversion of normal cells on the surface of the cervix into cancerous cells.

At first, cells may only show signs of a viral infection. Eventually, the cells may develop precancerous changes. This is known as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, which usually goes away spontaneously. In some cases, however, cervical intraepithelial neoplasia may progress to invasive cervical cancer.

It's not clear why some women are more likely to develop cervical cancer. Some types of HPV are simply more aggressive than are others. Cigarette smoking also increases the risk of cervical cancer.

There are two HPV vaccines available — Gardasil and Cervarix. They offer protection from several of the most dangerous types of HPV. Gardasil is approved for boys and men, girls and women ages 9 to 26. Cervarix is approved for girls and women ages 9 to 25.

If you're sexually active, the best way to prevent HPV and other sexually transmitted infections is to remain in a mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner. Otherwise, when you have sexual intercourse always have your partner use a condom. Regular screening for cervical cancer and precancerous changes of the cervix is important, too.

Aug. 24, 2013 See more Expert Answers