What causes cervical cancer?

Dr. Kevin W. Windom, MD
OBGYN (Obstetrician & Gynecologist)

Cervical cancer is most often caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). 60%-80% of women who are sexually active have been exposed to the human papillomavirus; therefore, it is a very common sexually transmitted infection. Most women never know they are even exposed to this virus.  Healthy patients with minimal exposure to this virus are usually able to keep the virus in "check" and never have any problems with abnormal Pap smears. The Pap smear is a commonly performed test in a normal gynecologic exam in which the cervix is visualized with a speculum and some cells are brushed away from the cervix and sent to the pathologist for evaluation. If in fact a patient does have an abnormal Pap smear, the next step is to perform a colposcopy in which the entire cervix is visualized under magnification and then the abnormal cells are biopsied. If in fact abnormal cells are seen on the colposcopic exam or biopsy, then numerous times I will offer patients cryotherapy in which the cervix is frozen to kill off the abnormal cells or a procedure called LLETZ in which the outer part of the cervix is removed.

Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Cervical cancer forms in tissues of the cervix (the organ connecting the uterus and vagina). It is usually a slow-growing cancer that may not have symptoms but can be found with regular Pap tests (a procedure in which cells are scraped from the cervix and looked at under a microscope).

This answer was based on source information from the National Cancer Institute.

Nine out of 10 cases of cervical cancer are caused by a virus called HPV (human papillomavirus). HPV is common in men and women -- most adults are infected at some time in their lives. A protective vaccine now exists for adolescent girls and young women. The vaccine is also being given to boys.

The virus can be passed through sexual contact. HPV infection has no symptoms, so most women do not know they have it. Most infections go away on their own. But, if HPV does not go away, it can cause changes in the cells of the cervix that can lead to cancer.

The main cause of cervical cancer is human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex. HPV also causes other cancers, including vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile, and a few head and neck (oropharyngeal) cancers. At least half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives. The Surgeon General has concluded that cigarette smoking increases a woman’s risk for cervical cancer.

Cancer can develop in any cells of the body if they begin to mutate and grow abnormally. The thin cells that line the cervix are where most cervical cancers originate. No one knows exactly why this mutation may start, but it is becoming more apparent that human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the leading causes of cervical cancer. HPV may actually influence the genetics that may trigger growth in the cervical cells. Even though there are links between HPV and most cases of cervical cancer, having HPV does not always lead to cervical cancer.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.