There are more than 100 varieties of human papillomavirus (HPV), which is an infection that causes warts in various parts of the body. There are more than 40 different strains of HPV that spread to the genital area, and some types of genital HPV can cause cancer of the cervix. Genital HPV infections are contracted through sexual intercourse and other skin-to-skin contact in the genital area, and, in rare cases, a mother with HPV may transmit the virus to her baby during delivery.
In most cases, cervical cancer is caused by two specific strains of genital HPV. However, these two strains do not cause warts or any other symptoms, so cervical cancer often goes undetected unless a woman receives regular pap smears.
The HPV vaccine protects against four major types of HPV. The vaccine can be administered to both females and males (only with Gardasil) ages 9 to 26 and is designed to be given in three doses over six months. Widespread HPV vaccination can potentially reduce cervical cancer deaths.
Who should get vaccinated?
It is recommended that HPV vaccinations be given before an individual is sexually active. The vaccination is only effective if the individual is not exposed to HPV.
- Gardasil: Females and males ages 9 to 26
- Cervarix: Females ages 9 to 25
When should women get Pap smears?
It is recommended that all women between the ages of 21 and 65, regardless of sexual activity, should get routine Pap smears as part of their health care.
The frequency of Pap smears depends on a woman’s age and health history. However, most women can follow these guidelines:
- Between the ages of 21 and 29—get a Pap smear every 3 years
- Between the ages of 30 and 64—get a Pap smear and human papillomavirus (HPV) test every 5 years, or a Pap smear alone every 3 years
- 65 and older—talk to a physician. Most women who have had 3 normal Pap smears in a row in the last 10 years do not need Pap smears any longer