HPV and cervical cancer

There are over 100 types of human papilloma virus (HPV) virus. Some types can affect the cervix and cause the abnormal cell changes that may develop into cervical cancer.

HPV is very common and most people are infected with it at some point. It can be passed on through any type of sexual contact with a man or a woman. It is often shared between sexual partners. Using a condom or other barrier contraception may reduce the risk of infection with HPV, but it does not offer complete protection.

Usually, the body’s immune system gets rid of the virus naturally. There are no symptoms and often the virus does not cause damage. Most people will never know they had it.

In some people, the immune system does not clear the infection and the virus stays in the body for longer. We do not know exactly why this is. If the virus affects the cervix for longer, it can start to cause damage that may eventually cause cancer.

Cervical cancer itself is not infectious. You cannot catch cancer or pass it on to other people.

The NHS offers a vaccine to girls between the ages of 11 and 13 to prevent HPV.

A weak immune system

Your immune system helps protect your body from infection and illness. A weak immune system is less likely to get rid of infections like HPV. Your immune system can be weakened by:

  • smoking
  • not eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • some conditions, such as HIV.

 

Smoking

As well as making the immune system weaker, the chemicals in cigarette smoke may also cause cervical cancer.

Contraceptive pill

If you take the contraceptive pill for more than five years, this may increase your risk of developing cervical cancer. Usually, the benefits of taking the pill outweigh the risks.

Regular cervical screening tests can reduce your risk by finding and treating abnormal changes before cancer develops.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor Nick Reed, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.


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