How is HPV linked to cervical cancer?

Most women with genital HPV infection do not develop cervical cancer.

Although genital HPV infection is very common, most women with HPV do not develop cervical cancer. However, when cervical cancer does occur, HPV is always present.

The different genital HPV types are called ‘low risk' or ‘high risk', according to their potential for causing cell changes which, if left untreated, could lead to cancer.

Some low-risk types can cause minor changes to the cells of the cervix, but these usually go away over 12 months or so as our body's natural immunity clears the virus. The cells then return to normal.

High-risk HPV types (for example, types 16 and 18) are also often cleared by the body's immune system, but these types are more likely to persist in the body than the low risk types. More serious cell changes occur when the high-risk types persist, however they can be detected by a Pap test and treated.

Cervical cancer usually takes many years to develop, but it is important to have Pap tests regularly so that significant cell changes can be found.

If women don't have regular Pap tests, cell changes may remain undetected and untreated, meaning these women have a greater risk of developing cervical cancer.

In some people, HPV may remain inactive in their bodies for many years. For this reason it is important to continue having regular Pap tests throughout your life.

Smoking is known to increase the risk of HPV infection persisting and causing cell changes.

Cancer Council Helpline