Is There a Connection Between HPV Risk and Hormonal Birth Control?

By Staff 6 Min Read

Some research suggests that hormonal contraception may make cervical cells more susceptible to HPV. More research is needed to understand the potential link, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

Oftentimes — 9 times out of 10, to be exact — HPV will clear up on its own within 2 years of exposure. Exposure typically occurs from vaginal or anal sex, but oral sex and intimate skin-to-skin contact can also transmit the virus.

But if the virus lingers, it can end up on the cells in the vulva, vagina, cervix, or anus. These cells can mutate and become cancerous if left untreated.

About 10% of people with HPV on their cervix develop a long lasting infection that increases the risk of cervical cancer. More than 95% of all cervical cancers are associated with HPV.

With that in mind, it’s important to be aware of your individual risk for HPV and cervical cancer.

“The most evidence for this type of connection that we see is in oral birth control,” says family nurse practitioner Adrienne Ton, director of clinical operations with TBD Health.

Some research suggests that the risk declines over time, particularly for people who use the birth control pill for more than 5 years or for people who discontinue use entirely.

Research from 2016 looking at the risk of HPV when using a hormonal IUD did not find an association between the two, explains Ton. In other words, no evidence suggests that hormonal IUD use increases the risk of HPV.

“Other types of hormonal birth control, like the implant, are not as well studied in this respect because they’re newer,” says Colleen Denny, MD, OB-GYN, director of family planning at NYU Langone Hospital—Brooklyn.

To be clear: Hormonal birth control does not cause HPV.

“Many who take hormonal birth control are sexually active, and HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI),” says Denny.

You can only contract HPV through partnered sexual contact. You cannot contract HPV by taking birth control pills or using other forms of hormonal contraception.

Intimate sexual contact without a condom or other barrier method can increase your risk of HPV and other STIs.

Although contracting HPV is the biggest risk factor for developing cervical cancer, this cancer can develop for a number of reasons.

People who smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products, for example, are more likely to develop cancer of any kind.

According to the American Cancer Society, the following can increase your risk of developing cervical cancer:

Vaccinating against HPV can help reduce your risk of contracting high risk strains associated with genital warts and certain cancers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccination at ages 11–12, but there are additional opportunities to get vaccinated later in life.

For example, people ages 15–26 can benefit from a three-dose protocol. Consult a healthcare professional to learn more if you’re between 27 and 45. While not always recommended for this age group, your doctor may recommend it based on your individual needs.

Internal and external condoms are the only form of birth control that can help reduce the risk of STIs. So, one thing you can do to reduce your risk of HPV is to use condoms, says Ton.

“You should also use barrier protection (like condoms or dental dams) during oral sex,” adds Ton.

Routine Pap smears can help you stay on top of any unusual changes. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends getting a Pap smear once every 3 years, beginning at age 21.

Healthcare professionals typically do not recommend separate HPV testing unless you have an abnormal Pap smear result.

“Other precautions include reducing activities that weaken the immune system, like smoking, and getting conditions that affect the immune system, like HIV or diabetes, under control,” says Denny.

If you’re considering or currently use hormonal contraception, it’s wise to consider the potential benefits and risks.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you should rule out hormonal birth control pills as your method of choice, notes Ton.

“Oral contraception offers many benefits, such as preventing pregnancy, helping with acne, and easing irregular [or] painful periods,” says Ton.

She adds that birth control pills may also help reduce the risk of other kinds of cancer.

“It’s important to take in the whole context of your health (including family history, habits, and activities) before deciding which birth control makes the most sense for you,” says Ton.

Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.

Share This Article
Leave a comment