Human papillomavirus, or HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). About 79 million Americans have HPV and 14 million people become infected with it each year.
For many people, the virus goes away on its own without much incident. There’s also a vaccine available to protect people. The bad news is that, if undetected or unmonitored, this viral infection can cause genital warts or lead to cancers.
How do you get HPV?
HPV is spread by having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who carries the virus. That individual might not have any symptoms or even be aware that he or she is infected.
What are HPV symptoms?
There are very few symptoms other than genital warts, which may not even appear on every infected individual. Symptoms may not show up for years.
How is HPV detected?
An abnormal pap smear result from your gynecologist is usually the first indication of HPV. Abnormal cervical cell changes can be linked to HPV and your doctor might do a test at the time of your pap smear. There is no real test HPV in men. Genital warts are usually the only other indication of an infection. The last is cancer.
What kind of cancers does HPV cause?
If undetected, HPV can cause cervical cancer, penile cancer, anal cancer, vulvar cancer and throat cancer. Cigarette smoking can place you at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. Besides pap smears or the appearance of genital warts, there is no other way of telling if you have HPV until the cancer itself appears. Those who develop genital warts are usually at low risk of developing cancer due to the type of strain.
How can you treat HPV?
In many cases, HPV will go away on its own. If you’ve been diagnosed with it through a pap smear, your doctor will monitor it to make sure it doesn’t progress into cancer. If genital warts appear, your doctor can remove those as well. If your doctor recommends removing the abnormal cells that may be precancerous, he or she will typically burn them off with liquid nitrogen, a laser or electric current.
If you require follow up from the procedure or further evaluation, your doctor will provide you with options for treatment.
Why should you get the HPV vaccine?
Because it’s such a common disease, anyone who is sexually active will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lifetime. It’s recommended that children receive their vaccinations at 11 or 12 years of age. Anyone up to age 26 who didn’t receive one when they were younger can also be vaccinated. The younger you are, the less likely it is that you’ve been exposed to the virus’ various strains, making the vaccine more effective. The vaccine is available to those over 26, but it is no longer covered by insurance. Still, it may be worth looking into even if you’re already sexually active. It’s also recommended for those in a monogamous relationship.
What are some other options for preventing HPV?
Like any sexually transmitted disease, it may be prevented with condoms and dental dams, as well as avoiding skin-to-skin contact. However, even if you take extreme precautions, there’s still a risk of exposure during sexual activity. Even if you are in a monogamous partnership, there’s a chance that person may carry the virus and not even know it. For that reason, the HPV vaccine is the best option for preventing transmission.
If you’re concerned about HPV for yourself or for your children, talk with your doctor about the options available. Call or contact Bloom Ob/Gyn today for an appointment at 202-449-9570.