Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus can cause HPV infections, genital warts, and cervical precancers (abnormal cells on the cervix that can lead to cancer).
The CDC says that 85% of people or almost every unvaccinated person who is sexually active will get HPV at some time in their life. Human papillomavirus is a group of more than 200 closely related viruses which are typically spread through sexual contact; most of those strains will cause no symptoms at all. Only about 14 of those 200 strains are high risk for causing genital warts, precancerous cells, or cancer, but those are the strains typically tested for, so those are the ones we track. About 13 million Americans, including teens, become infected with HPV each year. While most HPV infections will go away on their own just like a cold or the flu, infections that don’t go away can cause certain types of cancer over time.
According to the CDC experts, high-risk strains of HPV can cause cancers of the:
- Cervix, vagina, and vulva in women
- Penis in men
- Anus in both women and men
- Back of the throat (called oropharyngeal cancer), including the base of the tongue and tonsils, in both men and women
In fact, every year, HPV is estimated to cause nearly 36,500 cases of cancer in men and women in the United States. The CDC point out that that’s the average attendance for a professional baseball game.
But this is no game, and a far more important statistic is that HPV vaccination can prevent 33,700 of these cancers by preventing the infections that cause them. Since the vaccine has been used in the US, CDC figures indicate that infections with HPV types that cause most HPV cancers and genital warts have dropped 88% among teen girls and 81% among young adult women.
Additionally, among vaccinated women, the percentage of cervical precancers caused by the HPV types most often linked to cervical cancer has dropped by 40 percent.
So, what are some of the preventive measures you can take? The National Institutes of Health advises that people:
- Get vaccinated. HPV vaccines can prevent most cases of cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancers by targeting and preventing the highest-risk strains of HPV.
- Use condoms. Consistent condom use can help protect women from HPV infection.
- Avoid direct contact. The surest way to prevent genital HPV infection is to refrain from any skin-to-skin genital contact with another person. This is the smartest choice if you know that a person has HPV, but is obviously not always possible in an intimate relationship.
- Get tested. HPV infections can be diagnosed with a Pap test, which checks for cancer or precancerous changes of the cervix, or a molecular test that looks for HPV DNA. Unfortunately, the onus of responsibility here lies predominantly on women, as there is no easy or particularly effective HPV test for men. Pap tests are typically included in a woman’s annual wellness visit and HPV is tested for in a standard battery of STI testing, but this is not possible for men. Men are not typically screened for HPV unless there are already symptoms of genital warts or HPV-caused cancers present.
- Stay healthy. Regularly practicing healthy habits such as eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting enough sleep, and drinking enough water helps your body & immune system stay strong so it can work harder to clear an HPV infection on its own before it can cause problems.
“More than half of all sexually active people get a genital infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) at some point in their lives, but most never know it,” informs the NIH in one of its newsletters. “As a result, they might be spreading the virus to others without realizing it. Fortunately, vaccines are available to protect against the most harmful forms of HPV. These vaccines work best if given well before a person becomes sexually active.”
Who should get the HPV vaccine? The CDC recommends HPV vaccination for:
- All preteens (including boys and girls) at age 11 or 12 years (or can start at age 9 years).
- Everyone through age 26 years, if not vaccinated already.
Vaccination is not recommended for everyone older than age 26 years, the CDC says. “However, some adults age 27 through 45 years who are not already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their healthcare provider about their risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination,” their experts advise. “HPV vaccination in this age range provides less benefit. Most sexually active adults have already been exposed to HPV, although not necessarily all of the HPV types targeted by vaccination.”
They also remind everyone that no matter your age, having a new sex partner is a risk factor for getting a new HPV infection. However, people who are already in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship are not likely to get a new HPV infection. Bear in mind, too, that if you ever receive a diagnosis of HPV, it’s important to tell your partner, and if you are ever on the receiving end of a partner telling you, it’s important to be understanding. This is a common STI that almost every unvaccinated sexually active person will experience in their lifetime. Everyone should feel free to tell their partner about it without shame or fear of stigma. Talk about your risks, visit your doctors to discuss testing and next steps you need to take, and just be supportive.
Parents should talk to their children, too, about the dangers of HPV and recommend not starting to have sex when they are still very young.
“The younger you are when you start having sex, the greater your risk for acquiring an HPV infection if you’re exposed to the virus,”writes Beth W. Orenstein in her article “8 Ways to Prevent HPV or Detect it Early in Everyday Health. “The age group with the highest prevalence of HPV infection is 15 to 25 years old. There’s no way to know for sure whether a prospective partner — especially one who is known to be sexually experienced — has HPV.”
For those who do choose to have sex at a young age, the best way to protect themselves is to get vaccinated first. The HPV vaccine is given in two or three doses, generally over 6 to 12 months. Young people should know they can also lower their risk for HPV by using condoms from start to finish during any sexual encounter.
“Ideally, you and your partner should be honest with one another about your respective sexual histories,”Orenstein continues. “But keep in mind that anyone can have HPV and transmit the virus to a partner, even without any signs or symptoms of infection.”
All the more motivation to get vaccinated. Here’s what Dr. Pamela Deak, division chief of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UC San Diego Health System, tells her patients about the HPV vaccine:
“If you are vaccinated before being exposed to the virus, the HPV vaccine is 97 percent effective in preventing cervical cancer and cell changes that could lead to cancer,” she says. “Plus, it’s almost 100 percent effective in preventing external genital warts. The vaccine we use now protects against nine of the highest-risk HPV strains. This includes the strains that cause the majority of cervical pre-cancers and cancers, and the strains that cause the majority of external lesions and genital warts.”
The HPV vaccine is safe, highly effective, and an important measure for public health. So, consider getting vaccinated for yourself if you are still young and would qualify as a good candidate, or for your children if they are in the right age range. If HPV hasn’t impacted your life yet, talk to your doctor about how you can prevent infections with this very prevalent virus in the future.