HPV and cervical cancer

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the cause of almost all cervical cancers. Learn about HPV and how regular cervical screening can prevent cervical cancer.

HPV and cervical cancer

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common infection that is the cause of almost all cases of cervical cancer.[1] 

For most women, HPV is cleared on its own by the body’s immune system within one or two years and will not develop into cervical cancer

In some women, the infection does not go away and can increase the risk of cell changes developing in the cervix. 

In rare cases, these cell changes can result in cervical cancer. 

Key facts about HPV and cervical cancer

There are 100+ types of
HPV which affect different parts of the body

HPV naturally clears
within 1-2 years in
most people

A persistent HPV
infection can over
10-15 years lead to
cervical cancer

Cervical screening
can prevent cervical cancer
by detecting HPV

What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus

HPV is a common infection with over 100 types, which affect different parts of the body. In rare cases, certain types of HPV can cause cervical cancer.  

Around 80% of people will have an HPV infection at some point in their lives.[2,3] Most people will clear the infection in 1-2 years and very few will develop cervical cancer.

Most infected people will not have any symptoms.

A natural portrait of a woman with a short grey bob hair cut

How does HPV cause cervical cancer?

When HPV infects the cells lining the surface of the cervix, it can disrupt the regular functions of the cells, and cause them to grow in an uncontrolled way.

Although most HPV infections clear up naturally, some types— especially high-risk HPV types 16 and 18— are less likely to clear up on their own.

This persistent infection can cause the cells in the cervix to change, which can eventually develop into cervical cancer.

HPV types 16 and 18 cause around 70% of cervical cancers in Australia.[4]

How can the HPV vaccine protect me from cervical cancer?

Having the HPV vaccine prior to any sexual activity protects against some of the main types of HPV that cause cervical cancers. 

People who have had the vaccine still need to screen as the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV that can cause cancer.

Learn more about the HPV vaccine >

A woman in her mid twenties in the doctor's clinic speaking about cervical screening

What about cervical cancers that are not caused by HPV?

Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV and this is why it's important to have a Cervical Screening Test every five years.

However, there are some very rare cervical cancers not caused by HPV. Neither the Cervical Screening Test nor the old Pap test can detect these very rare cervical cancers. 

For this reason, it's important that if you experience symptoms such as abnormal bleeding to see your healthcare provider as soon as possible.  

More frequently asked questions and answers about HPV

Learn more about HPV

HPV is passed on by genital skin-to-skin contact between people during sexual activity, including sexual activity between two people of the same gender. It’s not transmitted through blood or other bodily fluids.

You can be exposed to HPV the first-time sexual activity occurs or from only one sexual partner. This means that all women and people with a cervix aged 25–74 who have ever been sexually active need to have a Cervical Screening Test every five years.

The Cervical Screening Test prevents cervical cancer by detecting the presence of HPV.

Most HPV infections have no symptoms or visible signs of infection. Most people with an HPV infection are not aware they have the virus.

When an HPV infection does not clear naturally or goes undetected it can lead to:

Low-grade abnormalities
Sometimes HPV infections can cause minor changes or abnormalities in the cells. For many women, their body will clear the HPV infection but other times the infection may progress.

High-grade abnormalities
If left undetected, HPV infection can sometimes progress and cause cells to become highly abnormal. This is known as high-grade abnormalities. These changes can be treated to prevent them from developing into cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer
When left untreated, high-grade abnormalities can become cancer. It usually takes about 10–15 years for persistent HPV infection to progress to cancer. 

That's why having a Cervical Screening Test every five years can prevent cervical cancer.

If HPV is found, you can either be monitored to ensure the infection clears on its own or abnormal cell changes can be treated if necessary.

Yes, there is a vaccine for some types of HPV. 

Having the HPV vaccine before becoming sexually active protects against the main types of HPV (including types 16 and 18) that cause most cervical cancers. 

As the HPV vaccine works best before people become sexually active, it is available for girls and boys aged 12–13 through a free school-based program.

While the HPV vaccine protects against certain high-risk types of HPV, it does not protect against all types of HPV. The HPV vaccine is also not effective against a HPV infection that is already in the body. 

This means that women and people with a cervix who have had the HPV vaccine still need to have a Cervical Screening Test every five years.

Find out more about the HPV vaccine >

There is no treatment for HPV and most people’s immune systems will clear the virus naturally.

However, if an ongoing HPV infection causes changes to the cells of your cervix these may need treatment. If treatment is needed, your doctor will recommend the most suitable treatment for you.

Learn more about understanding your cervical screen results >

If you have an HPV infection, it's likely that your partner has it too. If you or your partner are concerned about HPV, talk to your doctor or go to a sexual health centre for advice.

Remember, HPV is very common, and for most people the infection will clear up naturally within one or two years with no harmful effects.

More information on preventing cervical cancer