These days, many people refer to human papillomavirus (HPV) as the cervical cancer virus, even though HPV can also cause numerous other types of diseases, including penile cancer, oral cancer, and genital warts.
Still, its association with cervical cancer is what put HPV on the map. The scientist who linked the virus with cervical cancer even received the Nobel Prize for his research in 2008. That's because after many years of controversy, he finally figured out why cervical cancer behaved like a sexually transmitted disease.
There are a few isolated cervical cancers that are not associated with sexual behavior, but the vast majority result from sexual exposure to one of the cancer-associated types of HPV. Sexually transmitted HPV infections can result in cellular changes to the cervix, ranging from mild dysplasia to invasive cervical carcinomas. They can also cause vulvar and other genital cancers.
HPV is an extremely common infection -- the CDC estimates that more than half of all sexually active adults will be infected with it during their lives. However, it is important to know that not all cervical HPV infections will eventually become cervical cancer. In many cases, a woman's immune system can clear these infections without medical intervention or treatment. Even infections with the high-risk HPV types that are most associated with cervical cancer -- HPV-16, HPV-18, and HPV-31 -- often regress on their own.
That's why HPV testing is no substitute for the Pap smear. Many people believe that the Pap smear they receive during their annual exam is testing them for STDs, but it is not. The Pap smear is specifically looking for cervical changes that might be cancerous or pre-cancerous -- which do not occur in everyone who has been infected with the virus. It's also important to point out that while, depending on a woman's age, the sample may also be tested for HPV, the Pap smear is not a general STD test. It is also not a method of cervical cancer treatment.
The use of regular Pap smears has done an excellent job of reducing the number of cervical cancer deaths in the Western world, but in recent years, there has been a push to start risk reduction at an earlier stage by using vaccination and safe sex to prevent HPV and stop cervical cancers before they begin. The two types of HPV most commonly associated with cervical cancer have been preventable by vaccination since 2006.
Note: Condoms cannot entirely prevent HPV infection; however, they can reduce the risk of cervical disease.