Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). HPV is a different virus from HIV and HSV (herpes). Based on data from 2013 to 2017, about 45,300 HPV-related cancers occur in the United States each year: about 25,400 among women and about 19,900 among men. There are many different types of HPV. Some types can cause health problems, including genital warts and cancers. But there are vaccines that can prevent these health problems from occurring.
1. Odds Are You’ve Probably Had HPV
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States: According to the CDC, 79 million Americans are currently infected with some form of HPV, and 14 million become newly infected each year. Some data suggests that more than 80 percent of sexually active women will get HPV at some point.
HPV is actually an umbrella term for more than 150 strains of related viruses, most of which are relatively harmless. About 40 of them can infect the genital areas in both men and women, and a smaller number can cause genital warts or cancer.
Most of the time, you’ll never even know you’ve had HPV, because most strains (except those that cause warts) are symptomless. And in 90 percent of cases, the immune system clears the virus naturally within two years, according to the CDC. But when HPV does not go away on its own, some HPV strains can cause a variety of types of cancer.
People living with HIV are more likely to have HPV infections that persist, raising their chances of developing an HPV-related cancer.
2. Preservatives Can’t Completely Protect You From HPV
While condoms can reduce your risk of HPV infection, they cannot completely eliminate it. So being in a mutually monogamous relationship or simply having sex with someone who has sex with you can reduce the risk of HPV.
The virus can live in the scrotum and the hairy areas of the genitals, so any foreplay that involves skin-to-skin genital contact or oral and anal sex can transmit the virus.
That’s why it’s so important that teens get the HPV vaccine long before they become sexually active.
3. If You’re Infected, It May Be Wrong to Blame Your Current Partner
If you find out that you have HPV as a result of the Pap smear test, do not be prejudiced about where you got the virus.
Women who get cervical cancer at age 40 can become infected shortly after having sex with their first sexual partner. This is because HPV can lie dormant for years before causing cell damage that can lead to cancer. Cancers triggered by HPV can take years or even decades to develop.
4. If You Have An Abnormal Pap Smear Test Result, You May Be At Risk For Other Cancers Caused By HPV
Most people familiar with HPV associate it with cervical cancer, but the virus is increasingly playing a role in other types of cancer, including head and neck cancers, as well as cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, and penis. Evidence suggests that women with cervical cancer or precancerous changes in the cervix (known as dysplasia) have a higher risk of HPV-related cancers in other parts of the body.
These other HPV-related cancers are still quite rare, but their numbers are increasing. The American Cancer Society estimates in 2017:
In the United States, 5,250 women and 2,950 men have been diagnosed with anal cancer.
2,120 men were diagnosed with penile cancer.
6,020 women were diagnosed with vulvar cancer.
4,810 women were diagnosed with vaginal cancer.
12,820 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer.
There are currently no established screening guidelines for HPV-related cancers other than cervical cancer, but researchers are investigating how to identify people at high risk so their cancer can be detected and treated early.
For people at risk for anal cancer, an anal Pap test can be used to check for abnormal cells in the anal canal. This test is not routinely recommended for straight men and women, but if you are concerned about your risk of anal cancer, you should talk to your doctor about an Pap test.
5. Smoking Proven to Increase Risk of HPV-Associated Cancer
Smoking weakens the immune system, which can allow HPV to grow more widely. If you want to prevent a dormant HPV infection from developing into a precancerous or cancerous growth, you should quit your smoking habit right away.
6. Men Should Also Have The HPV Vaccine
The HPV vaccine not only provides women with nearly 100 percent protection against cervical cancers caused by HPV types 16 and 18 — which cause 70 percent of cervical cancers — but it also provides direct health benefits for men, including prevention of genital warts. And though conclusive studies have yet to be done, many researchers believe that vaccination of boys will eventually reduce rates of head and neck and other cancers as well.
Gardasil 9, the HPV vaccine currently given in the United States, is approved by the FDA for use in females ages 9 to 26; males ages 9 to 21; and also for males ages 21 to 26 if they have sex with men, are transgender, or have low immune function (because of HIV, for example).
The general recommendation is for all girls and boys to be vaccinated at age 11 or 12, but the vaccine can be given as early as age 9, as well as in later years if a person did not receive the vaccine at the recommended age.
7. Even If You Have HPV Vaccine, Pap Smear Tests Should Be Repeated Regularly
The HPV vaccine doesn’t protect against all possible high-risk types of HPV, nor does it protect against any strains a person was exposed to before vaccination, so Pap smears are still recommended for women who have had the HPV vaccine.
As of 2017, the only HPV vaccine available in the United States is Gardasil 9, which protects against HPV 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58, all of which can cause cancer, as well as types 6 and 11, which cause genital warts. Two earlier HPV vaccines, Cervarix and Gardasil, protect against fewer HPV strains.
8. The Vaccine Doesn’t Treat HPV
The HPV vaccine is only preventive. It doesn’t fight the virus in people who’ve already acquired it. That’s partly why it’s approved only for people in their twenties and younger; chances are that older populations have already been exposed to the HPV strains the vaccine protects against.
However, researchers are currently studying the value of vaccinating women older than 26. There’s no treatment for the HPV virus, although it can go away on its own. Women who have abnormal Pap test results may be advised to wait and be retested in three to six months, have additional tests to further examine any abnormality, or have treatment to remove the abnormal cells.