When a cervical HPV infection shows up later in life it could be the result of exposure decades earlier. But testing positive for high-risk types of HPV at any age indicates that there is a risk of cancer and it needs to be taken seriously.
Doctors and other health care providers are taking more steps to screen women later in life and this is because the virus can stay latent for years, or even decades. And, the HPV vaccine to prevent transmission is offered to women not previously vaccinated, up to age 46.
A 2012 study showed a woman may be exposed to the virus early in life but it may stay dormant until she goes through menopause.
“For many women, after initial infection, the virus becomes inactive,” said Dr. Amy McGaraghan, a gynecologist at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center. “Abnormal Pap and HPV results are usually transient and when they revert to normal the HPV virus has been suppressed. We continue routine screening however because HPV can again become active later in life.”
There are about 100 types of human papillomavirus and 14 of them are considered high risk for leading to cervical cancer. HPV is very common, perhaps up to 80 percent of sexually active people are infected at some point. Most of them never know.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 33,700 women and men in the United States are diagnosed with cancer caused by an HPV infection, including 12,000 women with cervical cancer, which kills about 4,000 annually. In addition to cervical cancer, HPV can cause some of the cancers of the vagina, vulva, anus, head and neck.
Most often HPV is detected through the pap test but it can be found through other methods, such as a colonoscopy.
Also, the CDC says about 14 million become newly infected with HPV each year — mostly teens and young adults.
Other examples of viruses that remain latent within otherwise normal appearing cells for years, and can cause disease long after initial exposure, include Herpes Simplex and the chicken pox virus, Varicella Zoster, which many years later can cause shingles.
Fortunately, the HPV vaccine has been approved for women up to 46, which enables another age group to get protected prior to exposure.
Prevention is one of our best tools and with the HPV vaccine we have the opportunity to prevent many of the cervical cancers caused by HPV. Until October 2018, Gardasil 9 was only available to individuals in their pre-teenage years through age 26.
Anyone who did not get the vaccine previously is encouraged to consider vaccination now. Even those that have been vaccinated should continue to have routine screenings, but the likelihood of abnormal results, additional testing or treatments, and most importantly, the risk of cancer is decreased.
For more information on HPV, speak with your health care provider.