HPV- three little letters that can change a person's future.
By now, most people have heard of HPV. Your general knowledge of this viral infection probably comes from television commercials or conversations with friends. But do you know what it is, how it is contracted, and its impact on your health?
HPV is not a “one-size-fits-all” STI. It’s more complex and deserves in-depth discussion.
WHAT IS HPV?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the name for a group of viruses that includes more than 200 related types.(4) It is the most common STI in the United States, with nearly 80% of women contracting at least one type of HPV in their lifetime.(3) These numbers are high, especially given the fact that there is no cure for HPV.
More than 40 types of HPV can be passed through sexual contact. The types that infect the genital area are called genital HPV and typically fall into two categories:(4)
- Low-risk HPVs, while generally harmless, can cause warts on or around the genitals, anus, mouth, or throat.
- High-risk HPVs can cause several types of cancer. There are about 14 high-risk HPV types.
HOW IS HPV TRANSMITTED?
HPV is spread through vaginal, oral, or anal sex, the use of sex toys and other objects, and even genital touching with someone who has the virus. Someone with HPV can pass the infection to another person without showing any signs or symptoms.(4) This is why the virus is so easily spread.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
In most low-risk HPV cases, the body’s immune system can fight off the infection before symptoms appear, explaining why most people with HPV do not know they are infected. But remember, a person not exhibiting any signs of HPV can still pass the virus to another.
For those cases that do show symptoms, the most common is genital warts. These usually appear as small bumps or groups of bumps in the genital area, ranging in size and texture. Warts can vary in appearance based on the type of HPV present.(2)
HPV AND CANCER
While there is no test to determine a person’s HPV status, there are tests that screen for cervical cancer:
- HPV test- checks cervical cells for high-risk HPV.
- Pap smear- checks for cervical cell changes that can be caused by high-risk HPV.
- HPV/Pap co-test- checks for both high-risk and cervical cell changes.
Because HPV infections cause nearly all cervical cancers, it's necessary to have regular pap smears to detect any changes in the cervix that might lead to cancer. The goal is to find precancerous cells before they turn into cancer. At that point, treatment can prevent cancer from developing.(4)
Cancers related to high-risk types of HPV can often take years, even decades, to develop once a person is initially infected with HPV. For this reason, annual well-woman appointments are vital to early detection.(1) HPV screening is a regular part of well-woman care at A Woman’s Place Medical Clinic. Schedule an appointment at one of our four clinics.
There are several things you can do to protect yourself from HPV and all STDs/STIs(3):
- Refrain from sexual contact.
- Get regularly tested for STDs/STIs.
- Maintain mutually monogamous relationships.
- Use condoms, dental dams, etc. - HPV can occur in female and male genital areas unprotected by condoms. Birth control pills, shots, implants, or diaphragms do not protect against STIs.
- Do not douche - Douching removes some of the normal bacteria in the vagina that protects you from infection, therefore possibly increasing your risk of getting STIs.
- HPV vaccination - The HPV vaccine helps prevent cervical cancer, genital warts, and other rare cancers. A Woman’s Place Medical Clinic does not currently offer the HPV vaccine; however, we educate all patients on the risks, benefits, and alternatives associated with the vaccine.
Except for abstinence, no single measure will prevent you from getting HPV. Healthy sexual practices will only help lower your chances of contracting an STI.
WHEN TO SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION
First, please remember that there is nothing to be embarrassed about. No matter what you are facing, A Woman’s Place Medical Clinic staff will meet you with the support you need.
We strongly encourage you to be proactive with your health. If you notice any outward physical changes on your genitals, immediately contact a medical practitioner. The longer you wait to get help, the more you increase your chances of an issue getting worse. Remember, early detection is critical. That starts with you understanding and respecting your body.
When you schedule an appointment at one of our four clinics, you will receive proper education with medically accurate information about HPV, all STIs, and the HPV vaccine. We want you to be fully empowered with options to make the decisions that are best for you. Let us be a safe place for you to ask questions and walk away from your appointment feeling confident as an advocate for your health.
- CDC: HPV Infection Fact Sheet
- Mayo Clinic: HPV Infection
- Office on Women’s Health: Human papillomavirus
- National Cancer Institute: HPV and Cancer