The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a viral disease spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact. HPV contains over 100 different viruses, of which at least 14 strains are related to cancer development. Many cases of cervical and rectal cancers are similar to high-risk strains of HPV.
Despite increased awareness regarding the virus and vaccines to stop it, there remains a lot of confusion about HPV generally. This not only leads to delayed treatment if you miss the signs of disease, but it can also put you at risk of getting or spreading the virus to other people.
Here are 9 essential facts everyone should know about the human papillomavirus:
1. HPV Is More Prevalent Than You May Think
It is observed that over 79 million Americans are infected with HPV, which makes it the single most frequent sexually transmitted disease from the U.S.3
The CDC says, among adults between the ages of 18 and 59, 42.5% are infected with genital HPV, and 7.3 percent are infected with the oral strains
It’s so common that researchers believe almost all sexually active people will get the virus at some point in their lives.
2. You Can Get HPV Even Without Sexual Intercourse
HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin sexual contact. This shouldn’t imply that sex is the sole route of infection. In fact, no penetration of any kind is necessary to transmit the virus, and any area not covered by a condom could be infected.
By and large, anal and vaginal sex are the activities most linked with viral transmission. However, less commonly, the virus can also be transmitted through oral sex. The risk only increases if you have more than one sex partner or have sex with someone who has had many partners.
3. Not All Kinds of HPV Cause Cancer
HPV is a group of over 100 distinct viruses. Some are high-risk strains related to cancer; others are low-risk types known to cause genital warts.
The strains thought to be of high risk are types 16 and 18, which together represent five percent of all cancer cases worldwide.
There’s a common misunderstanding among many that genital warts are a precursor to cancer. This is not true. The HPV strains that cause genital warts are not supposed to cause cancer.
With that being said, getting a genital wart should not suggest you’re”safe.” Individuals can be infected with multiple types, and a wart should be a warning for potential exposure to higher risk strains.
4. There Is a Vaccine but No Treatment
The types of HPV that cause cervical and cancer genital warts can be managed but not cured. Likewise, genital warts can be cured by eliminating them, but their removal does not exterminate the underlying virus.
While there are vaccines today that could significantly decrease the risk of HPV in young women and men, they aren’t sterilizing vaccines. They can’t neutralize the virus in people already infected.
5. Most People With HPV Don’t Have Symptoms
You cannot recognize if a person has HPV by seeing them or looking to find genital warts. It doesn’t work like that. In fact, most people don’t have any signs of infection and might become aware of the condition if they have an abnormal Pap smear result.
However, even for people who do have symptoms, they are usually either overlooked or misunderstood.
6. The HPV Vaccine Doesn’t Protect Against All Strains
The three HPV vaccines approved in the U.S. can protect against some but not all the high-risk strains:
- Gardasil protects against four most common types and the two, which cause 9 percent of genital warts.
- Gardasil 9 prevents against an additional five strains.
- Cervarix protects against the two most prevalent high-risk strains but provides no protection against genital warts.
While these vaccines generally provide much protection, they may fall short in women with HIV, who often lead to cervical cancer as a result of an atypical HPV type.
7. HPV Testing Is Different for Male and Female
The HPV test and a Pap smear can be done together in women during a gynecological examination.
The USPSTF (U.S. Preventive Services Task Force) now endorses regular testing at the following age groups:
- Women 21 to 65 must have a Pap test and an HPV test every 3 years.
- Women under 21 and over 65 don’t require HPV screening but may be tested in the presence of an abnormal Pap smear result.
As for men, no HPV test is available. But some physicians may run a test on an anal Pap smear in high-risk people who are involved in receptive anal sex.
8. Some Doctors Are Hesitant to Do HPV Testing
One of the reasons why health authorities are hesitant to issue testing guidelines is that the benefits of HPV testing are still mostly unpredictable.
While a negative test is a great sign that you won’t get cancer, a positive result means nothing. This is because nearly all HPV infections go away in two years with no complications. A positive result may create more distress than direct or mandatory investigations that aren’t needed.
9. HPV Vaccination Isn’t Only for Young People
The CDC recommends HPV vaccination for all women from age 12 or 11. They also endorse its use in girls ages 13-26 years who haven’t been previously vaccinated.
But, just because you are over 26 does not mean that you should not get vaccinated. Transgender people, gay and bisexual men, and immune-compromised persons (including people with HIV) are among the groups that the CDC advises for later immunization since they run a much higher risk of rectal and cervical cancer than the general population.
If you are at higher risk for rectal or cervical cancer, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor to perform one. It’s fast, easy, and costs around $100 (that your insurance may cover).
10. You Can’t Forego Cancer Testing Even If You Get The HPV Vaccine
Even if you get the vaccine, you have to be cautious about getting tested for cervical cancer. The vaccine shows a decrease in advanced precancerous lesions, but it has not been around long enough to give the 20 years of data required to indicate a reduction in actual cancer cases.