The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a viral infection that is spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact. There are over 100 different types of HPV, and 30 of them are linked to the development of cancer. In fact, over 96% of cervical cancers and 93% of anal cancers are associated with high-risk forms of HPV. Furthermore, penile and oropharyngeal cancers are also linked to high-risk strains.
Despite ever-increasing awareness and the development of preventative vaccines, there remains a lot of confusion about HPV in general. This might not only lead to delayed treatment should you miss the signs of the infection, but it can also put you at risk of either getting or spreading the virus to others.
Below are 9 important facts that we should all know about HPV:
It’s estimated that over 20 million Americans are infected with HPV, making it the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 42.5% of adults between the ages of 18 and 69 are infected with a genital HPV, and 7.3% are infected with an oral HPV.
In fact, it is so common, that researchers believe that almost all sexually active people will get the virus at some points in their lives.
2. You Don’t Need to Have Intercourse to Get HPV
HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin sexual contact. However, this does not imply that intercourse is the only way to become infected. In fact, no penetration is needed to transmit the virus, and any areas not covered by a condom can become infected.
By and large, anal and vaginal intercourse are the activities most associated with HPV transmission. Although not as common, the virus can also be transmitted through oral sex. The risk increases if you have multiple sexual partners or have sex with someone who has had many partners.
The strains that are considered to be of high risk are types 16 and 18, which together represent 5% of all cancers worldwide.
There is a common misconception among many that genital warts are a precursor to cancer - this is not the case. The HPV strains that are responsible for genital warts are not known to cause cancer. However, having said this, having a genital wart does not suggest that you’re “safe.” People can be infected by multiple types of HPV, and the appearance of a wart should act as a warning sign of a possible exposure to higher risk strains.
4. There is a Vaccine but No Cure for HPV
The HPV viruses that cause genital warts and cervical cancer can be managed but not cured. Similarly, genital warts can be treated by removing them, but this doesn’t eliminate the underlying virus.
While there are vaccines that can greatly reduce the risk of HPV in young men and women, they are not sterilizing vaccines and cannot neutralize the virus in those who are already infected.
5. Most People with HPV Do Not Have Symptoms
It’s not possible to tell if someone has HPV by looking at them or searching for genital warts. Most people have no signs of infection and may only become aware of the condition if they have had abnormal Pap smear results.
Sometimes symptoms can arise, but they are often overlooked or misunderstood. One study conducted by the National Cancer Institute showed that more than half of the women with genital warts did not know that they had HPV, while just under two-thirds were unaware that HPV can cause cancer.
7. HPV Testing is Different for Men and Women
The HPV test can be performed on women along with a Pap smear during a gynecological exam. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force currently endorses routine testing for the following age groups:
• Women aged 30-65 should have a Pap test and HPV test every five years.
• Women under 30 do not need HPV screening, but should be tested if abnormal Pap smear results occur.
As for men, there is no HPV test available at the moment to detect genital HPV. However, some doctors might run a HPV test on an anal Pap smear in high-risk men (and women) who engage in receptive anal sex.
One of the reasons why health agencies are reluctant to carry out routine testing is that the benefits of HPV testing are still largely uncertain.
While a negative result is a good indication that you won’t get cancer, a positive result often means nothing too. This is because the majority of HPV infections go away after two years without any complications. As such, a positive result might cause more stress than necessary.
9. HPV Vaccination is Not Just for Young People
The CDC currently suggests that all boys and girls between the age of 11 and 12 should get a HPV vaccination. They also endorse its use in females aged 13-26 and males aged 13 to 21 (who have not been previously vaccinated).
However, if you’re over the age of 26, this does not mean you shouldn’t get vaccinated. Gay and bisexual men, transgender people, and immunocompromised persons (including those with HIV) are among the groups the CDC recommends for later immunization as they run a much higher risk of contracting anal and cervical cancer.
If you think you’re at risk of anal or cervical cancer, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor to vaccinate you. It’s fast, simple, and costs around $100.