HPV: The Top 5 Things You Should Know

Teen girl getting a vaccination shot

It’s estimated 70% of men and women will come into contact with Human papillomavirus, or HPV, during their lifetime. Do you know the risks associated with this common virus? Do you know how to protect yourself?

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States -- it’s estimated over seventy nine million people are currently infected. Although most cases of HPV cause no symptoms and are naturally cleared by the body’s immune defense, some strains of the infection can lead to genital warts and several types of cancer, including cervical. There are no treatment options for HPV, but regular screenings can eliminate your chances of the virus progressing into something more serious.

How HPV Spreads

HPV is spread through any type of sexual contact. Unlike most other sexually transmitted infections, HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact, and not through the sharing of bodily fluids. This puts a greater number of sexually active people at risk for contracting HPV, including young people who are just starting to become sexually active. Those who have had a greater number of sexual partners are at a higher risk of contracting HPV.  HPV is often contracted and passed on without the infected party’s knowledge.

HPV and Cervical Cancer

Certain types of HPV called “High-risk HPV types,” are resistant to the efforts of the body’s immune system. These types of HPV can cause changes in your cervical cells that can eventually develop into cervical cancer. Cervical cancer can be detected early by regular Pap and HPV screenings. Although HPV is not treatable, the abnormal cervical cells can be removed, reducing your risk of cervical cancer. Typically, cervical cancer takes 10-20 years to develop, so even women who are no longer sexually active should continue to have regular screenings.

The Basics: What You Need to Know About HPV, in Five Facts

1. Not Every Type of HPV will Cause Cancer.

There are actually over 200 types of HPV. Although that seems like a staggeringly high number, only a select few strains are dangerous. Most types of HPV infections won’t present any symptoms and will resolve on their own, fought off by your body’s immune system. However, some strains, if undiagnosed, can cause genital warts, or even cancer. For women over 30, it’s less likely HPV infections will resolve on their own. During regular screenings, doctors are able to tell which women are at higher risk for cervical cancer. 

2. You Can Limit Your Risks.

Since HPV is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, the spread of the infection is statistically more likely than STIs transmitted by contact with bodily fluids. While condoms do reduce the risk of contracting HPV, couples that use condoms still run a risk of transmitting HPV to one another. If you want to reduce your likelihood of contracting HPV, you should use condoms. However, the only sure-fire way to avoid contracting HPV is abstinence. You can greatly decrease your risk by limiting the number of sexual partners you have and understanding the sexual history of your partner.

3. Cervical Cancer is Not the Only Risk.

HPV infection is one of the leading causes of cervical cancer; 99% of all cases of cervical cancer can be linked back to HPV. Other types of cancer are possible but rare. Other HPV-related cancers include cancers of the anus, vagina, vulva, penis, throat, larynx, and mouth. This is why HPV should not be thought of strictly as a virus affecting women. Undetected HPV can cause cancer and genital warts in both men and women.

Regular Pap and HPV screenings will detect almost all pre-cancerous cells caused by any type of HPV. Although the CDC does not approve a regular HPV test for men, men should seek medical advice if a partner is diagnosed with HPV, or if they notice any changes to their health.

4. Early Detection is Key.

Each year in the United States, more than 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Additionally each year, more than 4,000 women will die. Globally, cervical cancer is one of the most common types of cancer found in women. It is also, however, the most preventable and treatable.  While nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, early detection plays an important role in treatment. Regular Pap screenings and HPV tests can monitor for changes in your cervical cells. Cervical cancer is completely preventable, if detected early enough, by removing abnormal cervical cells before they become cancerous.

5. You Can Still Get Vaccinated, and You Should.

The vaccine for HPV is typically recommended for both boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 12. However, as you grow older, you’re still eligible to have the vaccine administered. The strength of your immune response will lessen as you age, so those ages 15 and older will have to receive three full doses, instead of one or two. Being vaccinated greatly reduces your risk of contracting HPV; the current vaccine is effective against HPV types that cause 90% of cervical cancer. Even if you’re currently sexually active and have come into contact with a strain of HPV, being vaccinated can still benefit you and reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer.

If you’re worried about HPV, reach out to your local Capital Women’s Care physician. The staff can assist you in understanding HPV and Pap screening, HPV vaccinations, and/or cervical cancer detection and treatment.

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