What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is a rare outcome of persistent infection with certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact during sex. The virus passes through microscopic breaks in the skin, not in blood or other body fluids, and can be hidden in your body for years.

There are high-risk and low-risk types of HPV. Infection with one of the many types of HPV is very common among people who have ever had sex; so common that up to four of every five people will be infected during their lives.

In most cases an HPV infection will be cleared from your body without causing any symptoms. You probably won’t even realise you had it.

But in about 10% of cases, infection with high-risk HPV continues. This may lead to changes in the cells of the cervix, which can, in a small number of women, develop into cancer (See Figure 1).

There are three types of high-risk HPV that are most commonly linked to cervical cancer, namely: types 16, 18 and 45. The cervical cancer vaccine protects against types 16 and 18, which are the types found in more than 70% of diagnosed cases of cervical cancer in Australia.

Having a regular Pap test is the best way to discover if you have an HPV infection that could develop into cancer. 

 Figure 1. HPV Progression to cervical cell changes

HPV progression flowchart

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