Almost all cases of cervical cancer (99.7%) are caused by infections with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common infection that four out of five sexually active adults will come into contact with in their lives. It is contracted through any skin-to-skin contact, including genital-to-genital contact, anal, vaginal and oral sex.
There are over 100 different types of HPV, each of which is given a specific number . Around 13 types of HPV have been linked to cervical cancer; these are known as ‘high-risk’ types of HPV. Of the high-risk types, HPV 16 and 18 are responsible for causing over 70% of cervical cancers in the UK .
Most women will clear high-risk HPV infections themselves without it causing any harm. However, in a small number of women it can remain 'dormant' (inactive) or persistent, sometimes for many years. In these cases high-risk HPV can cause cervical abnormalities (changes to the cells of the cervix) to develop, which, if left untreated, can develop into cervical cancer over time.
There are usually no symptoms associated with high-risk HPV infections, which means it is very important to attend your regular cervical screening (smear test) when you are invited, so that any abnormalities in the cells of the cervix can be detected and treated before they get a chance to develop into cervical cancer.
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Li N et al., 2011. Human papillomavirus type distribution in 30,848 invasive cervical cancers worldwide: variation by geographical region, histological type and year of publication. International Journal of Cancer 128, 927–935.
Bosch FX et al., 2008. Epidemiology and natural history of human papillomavirus infections and type-specific implications in cervical neoplasia. Vaccine 26 (Suppl. 10), K1–K16.
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