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The Complete Facts About HPV: Human Papilloma Virus

HPV vaccine Gardasil

Introduction

Human papilloma virus, or HPV, is a group of viruses that can infect the skin and mucous membranes. There are more than 100 types of HPV, and some can cause cancer. Most people who contract HPV never experience any symptoms or serious health problems. Usually, the body’s immune system will fight off the infection and clear out the virus within a few months. When left untreated, however, some strains of HPV can cause genital warts and even lead to cancer in some cases. There are over 15 million new cases of HPV every year in the United States alone. If you have questions about human papilloma virus or want to understand how it affects your risk for contracting cancer, this guide should have everything you need to know about HPV:

What is HPV?

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. It is so common that almost all sexually active people will contract it at some point in their lives, even if they practice safer sex. There are both benefits and drawbacks to HPV’s ubiquity: On the one hand, widespread HPV infection makes it difficult to know who is or isn’t infected, since there are no outward signs. On the other hand, since so many people have it, there’s a good chance there’s a treatment for your specific strain of HPV, should it lead to any health problems. HPV is a group of viruses that infect the skin and mucous membranes. The most common types of HPV infect the genitals and mouth, though some are specific to feet, hands, or other areas. Most people will contract some form of HPV at some point in their lives, though in most cases, their bodies automatically fight off the infection on their own, and they won’t even know they have it.

How Do You Get HPV?

HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, most often during sexual intercourse. Most types of HPV are passed through genital contact, and some are transferred by oral sex. HPV is less likely to be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact in other areas of the body, but it can happen. It is also possible to get HPV from a sexual partner who doesn’t have any visible signs of infection. Many people with HPV don’t realize it because there are usually no symptoms. There are several ways to get HPV: having sex with someone with the virus, using a partner’s sex toy without proper cleaning, having sex with someone with HPV that hasn't been diagnosed yet. If you are sexually active, it is important to understand the risks of contracting HPV. While it is possible to get HPV even if you always use protection, it is more likely if you don’t get regular screenings. Frequent STD testing is advised for people who engage in unprotected sex.

What Are the Symptoms of HPV?

One of the reasons many people don’t realize they’ve been infected with HPV is that they don’t experience any symptoms. In fact, up to 80% of people with HPV don’t even know they’re infected. Most people who contract HPV will have the virus cleared from their bodies within a few months. If HPV goes away on its own, you will not be able to pass it to future partners. A small percentage of people will get symptoms from HPV. These are usually mild and may include an itching or burning sensation in the genitals or areas where the virus was transferred. In rare cases, HPV can cause health problems like genital warts, or it can lead to certain types of cancer.

What is the Risk of Developing Cancer from HPV?

HPV infection is responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer, and it has also been linked to cancers in the anus, vaginal area, and some cancers of the oropharynx (back of the mouth including the base of the tongue, soft palate, tonsils, and the back wall of the throat). Given the high prevalence of HPV, the risk of developing an HPV-related cancer is low. In the United States, about 79,000 new cases of HPV-related cancers are diagnosed each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most people who get an HPV-related cancer don’t know it until the disease is advanced and it’s too late to treat it. There are ways to reduce your risk for HPV-related cancers, including getting vaccinated and practicing safer sex.

How to get tested for HPV

Health care providers can take a sample of cells from the cervix and test the sample for the presence of the Human Papillomavirus. If the test is positive, they can also perform a colposcopy and biopsy to determine if the cells they’ve found are precancerous. Since normal cells can be infected with the HPV virus, it is normal to have a positive test result. If the cells are precancerous, you have a long time to reverse the process before they become cancerous. Women who have had an abnormal Pap smear should get a colposcopy with biopsy as part of follow-up. HPV can cause cells to grow that look like the cells that lead to cervical cancer. Because it can take many years for these changes to become cancerous, testing for HPV and getting the appropriate treatment for it can prevent cervical cancer.

How to protect yourself from contracting HPV

Although there is no guaranteed way to avoid contracting HPV, practicing safer sex is the best way to reduce your risk. Additionally, you can take certain steps to protect yourself from contracting HPV. For example, you can reduce your risk of contracting HPV by properly cleaning your sex toys. This can help prevent the spread of HPV, as well as other STDs. The CDC recommends everyone get vaccinated against HPV when they are 11 or 12 years old, even if they have no plans to become sexually active. There are three types of HPV vaccines, including Gardasil and the newer Gardasil 9, Cervarix, and HPV-9. Although there is no cure for HPV, you can take steps to reduce your risk of developing an HPV-related cancer. If you are diagnosed with HPV, your doctor may recommend follow-up testing to monitor the progression of the disease, as well as potential treatments.

Is There a Cure for HPV?

There is currently no cure for HPV, but there are treatments available for the most common HPV-related health problems: genital warts and precancerous growths on the cervix (and other HPV-related cancers). A health care provider can remove genital warts with a chemical solution, freezing, or laser therapy. Some people get genital warts more than once, though the frequency varies. HPV-related cancers usually take years to develop, and there are now methods of detecting these cancers early. Some types of HPV-related cancers can be treated, though others are considered incurable at this time.

Final words: Know your risks

HPV is extremely common and likely among sexually active adults. It’s best to get tested regularly, so you can catch the infection early. If you are diagnosed with HPV, remember that many people have it and can be treated. You can also reduce your risk of contracting HPV by regularly practicing safer sex and getting vaccinated.

Marilu is a sexuality coach and board certified sexologist. For more information about Marilu, visit mariluandyou.com

Image by fernando zhiminaicela from Pixabay

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