Human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer:

Know the risks and how to protect yourself

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost all cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).

Mother and daughter on a couch

Most of the time, HPV will go away on its own within two years and not cause any problems at all. But for some people, there are serious consequences. (HPV can also cause anal, vulvar, vaginal, and penile cancers, as well as cancers of the throat and tongue.) Unfortunately, HPV is also extremely common. There are over 40 different types of the virus (only some are cancer-causing). By age 50, at least four out of every five women will be infected by HPV at some point in their lives.

Other risk factors

While HPV is a main cause of cervical cancer, it’s not the only one.

Other risk factors include:

  • Contracting HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), or other conditions that likewise compromise your immune system
  • Having several sexual partners (each partner could introduce different types of HPV, increasing your likelihood of contracting HPV)
  • Smoking
  • The birth of three or more children
  • Using birth control pills for five or more years

Prevention tips

  • Get the HPV vaccine. While it can prevent new HPV infections, it does not treat existing infections or diseases — this is why the vaccine works best when given before any exposure to HPV.
  • Getting screened is the most effective form of prevention. Cervical screenings should begin at age 21. Your doctor can perform two effective tests to help detect cervical cancer:
    • A pap test (sometimes called a pap smear) looks for precancerous cell changes on the cervix. These cells could become cervical cancer if not treated early and appropriately.
    • HPV tests look for the virus that can cause these cell changes.
  • If you smoke, you should stop. If you’re thinking about quitting, visit Let’s quit smoking — together, to learn how we can help.
  • Limit your number of sexual partners to limit exposure to HPV.

To learn more about screenings and the HPV vaccine, visit Stop cervical cancer before it starts.

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Source: "Basic Information about HPV and Cancer." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

The information provided is meant for a general audience. Capital Blue Cross and its affiliated companies believe this health education resource provides useful information but does not assume any liability associated with its use.