Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

A quick look at HPV

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a group of common related viruses. There are more than 100 types of HPV, 40 of which can affect the genital area.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Approximately 79 million Americans have HPV.

HPV often causes no health problems and goes away on its own. Most people do not know they have it.

However, there are some strains that can cause cancer, most often cervical cancer in women. HPV types 16 and 18 cause approximately 70% of all cervical cancers worldwide.

Women can get HPV through vaginal, anal or oral sex.

The HPV vaccine is a safe and effective form of protection against cancer caused by HPV, including types 16 and 18.

We recommend that girls and boys who are 11 to 12 years old be vaccinated.

We also recommend the administration of the HPV vaccine to our patients between the ages of 13 to 26 who have not previously been vaccinated, or who have not completed the vaccine series.

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What is human papillomavirus?

HPV is a viral infection that most commonly causes warts on the body. Of the more than 100 types of HPV, 40 affect the genital areas. An estimated 20 million Americans are currently infected with one of these genital HPV strains.

It is so common that over half of all sexually active people will have HPV at some point. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease passed through genital contact, including through vaginal, anal and oral sex.

There is no cure for HPV. But in more than 90% of the cases, the HPV dissipates on its own and causes no health problems. If this does not occur, some strains of HPV can cause genital warts or warts in the throat. The strains of HPV that cause genital warts are different than the types that cause cancer.

The CDC reports that women in the U.S. get 19,400 cases of HPV-related cancer every year, which is considerably higher than men’s cancer rate from HPV. Women are more susceptible to atypical cellular changes of the cervix caused by HPV. These cellular changes are sometimes called “dysplasia.” Dysplasia is a medical word describing abnormal cells. Most cervical cancers are caused by HPV.

What are HPV symptoms?

Some people with HPV will develop genital warts, but many people have no symptoms. Most often HPV warts go away on their own. Genital warts affect roughly 360,000 men and women in the U.S. every year and do not turn into cancer.

Some types of HPV may lead to cervical cancer or other forms of cancer, such as cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus and throat. These types of HPV do not present symptoms until the disease has progressed.

Diagnosing HPV

It is crucial women get regularly scheduled Pap smears. Pap smears can identify abnormal cells in the cervix, which could be caused by HPV. Pap testing also screens for high risk types of HPV to help detect women who may be at increased risk of developing cervical dysplasia. Should a Pap smear come back abnormal, more testing may be necessary.

One of these additional tests may include a colposcopy, during which a physician examines the cervix with a colposcope, which provides a microscopic view. A small biopsy of the cervix is taken during the procedure to see if abnormal cells are present. This biopsy feels like a quick pinch and is not painful.

Abnormal Pap smear does not mean cervical cancer.

An abnormal Pap result usually does NOT mean cancer. HPV is exceptionally common, to the point that almost all of us have been exposed to this virus and have had a transient infection.

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How is HPV treated?

While there is currently no treatment for HPV, there are treatments for the problems it causes. Genital warts can be addressed through medication, or sometimes the warts disappear on their own. As previously mentioned, early diagnosis is key for treatment of cervical cancer and HPV-caused cancers.

Can human papillomavirus be prevented?

Vaccines have become an effective and safe form of human papillomavirus prevention. Since the HPV vaccine has become available, HPV infections have decreased 71% among teenage girls. There also has been a drop in HPV types that can cause warts or cancers by 61% for young adult women.

HPV vaccination is most effective when given to individuals before becoming sexually active. Two doses of the HPV vaccine are recommended for all children, girls and boys, at ages 11 and 12. The vaccine can be given as early as age 9, or later, however those older than 15 may need multiple doses. The vaccine is recommended for everyone through age 26 as well.

As with all vaccinations, there is a risk of mild side effects including:

  • Pain and redness in the arm where the shot was given.
  • Nausea.
  • Headache.
  • Dizziness or fainting may occur and is more common among adolescents.

The vaccine cannot treat HPV or HPV-associated complications. The vaccination also does not replace regular Pap smears.

Women can also help prevent getting HPV by always using a condom during sex. Condoms can reduce the chance of contracting HPV, but they do not eliminate the risk entirely due to groin to groin contact.