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Does a positive test for HPV mean I'll get cervical cancer?

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Updated May 01, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: Does a positive test for HPV mean I'll get cervical cancer?
Now that HPV testing is more common, there are many women who are trying to understand what it means to have a positive test for HPV. Unsurprisingly, given the way the media discusses sciences, they are often concerned that a positive test for HPV means that they're definitely going to develop cervical cancer. However, that's not the case at all.
Answer: Although HPV infection is responsible for most, if not all, cervical cancer cases -- as well as genital warts and other forms of cancer in both women and men -- most women who are infected with HPV will never develop cervical cancer. In fact, more than 70 percent of women who receive a positive test for HPV will clear the infection and test negative again within two years. Of the remaining 30 percent, most will eventually clear their infections and only a small percentage of the rest will go on to develop a significant abnormal Pap smear result, let alone cervical cancer. Some factors that effect how long a woman remains infected with HPV include the strain she is infected with, whether she is on oral contraceptives, and whether she smokes.

A positive test for HPV mostly indicates that you should be conscientious about regular screenings for cervical dysplasia and early signs of cervical cancer, because your risk is higher than women who have not been infected with HPV. However, only a small fraction of even women with persistent HPV will ever develop cervical cancer and, with regular screening and prompt treatment, most severe consequences of cervical cancer can be prevented. That means that while a positive test for HPV does indicate a need for follow-up, particularly if that positive HPV test occurs in combination with an abnormal Pap smear, it does not indicate a need for panic.

Sources:

Louvanto K, Rintala MA, Syrjänen KJ, Grénman SE, Syrjänen SM. Genotype-specific persistence of genital human papillomavirus (HPV) infections in women followed for 6 years in the Finnish Family HPV Study. J Infect Dis. 2010 Aug 15;202(3):436-44.

Nielsen A, Kjaer SK, Munk C, Osler M, Iftner T. Persistence of high-risk human papillomavirus infection in a population-based cohort of Danish women. J Med Virol. 2010 Apr;82(4):616-23.

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