[Question #7549] Need clarification on HPV

4 months ago
About 15 years ago in my early 20’s I had my first Pap smear and it can came back positive for HPV. I believe they did a colposcopy.  I was upset as I never had intercourse but filled around enough and got it anyway.
A  year after that it came back negative. And I’ve had another negative one since. Since that time, I’ve only been with one other person, my husband, and I’m certain we are in a monogamous relationship.
Today I got a call that my annual Pap was normal but I have HPV. Everything I’ve read says you clear this on your own in one to two years- and I thought I had. My doctor says it doesn’t  actually go away, it just lies dormant. Which is it? 
I am beside myself with worry. I feel horrible and ashamed and convinced I’m going to give myself cervical cancer and my husband head and neck cancer since I’m one of the few that will always have it reoccur.
Edward W. Hook M.D.
Edward W. Hook M.D.
4 months ago

Welcome to our Forum and thanks for your questions.  There is a lot of misinformation about HPV around and understanding of this widespread infection is uncommon, even among health care professionals.  I'll be glad to comment. 

As your experience years ago showed, HPV is widespread- about 80% of sexually active persons will be infected.  In the vast majority of cases, the immune system controls the infection, making the infection no longer detectable and preventing progression to cancer (which occurs in less than 1% of infections).  As recently as 5 or 10 years ago, it was widely believed that when HPV became non-detectable the body had eliminated the virus.  More recent data however now show that the virus remains present and from time to time transiently reactivates enough that it can be detected at the time of recommended regular testing, just as your doctor has suggested.  This is not a reason for concern and the fact that you had a positive test is not a reason for concern and certainly not a reason for shame.  From the sound of things, your doctor is well informed.  Your risk for cancer is low.  I would suggest you simply continue to have regular screening and please don't worry about cancer.  The regular check ups that detected this likely transient reactivation will keep you safe.   

I hope that information is helpful.  EWH

---