5 Things You Need to Know About HPV

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 75 percent of Americans of reproductive age have been exposed to human papillomavirus (HPV), the most commonly sexually transmitted disease.

But despite its prevalence, there remains a lot of misconceptions and myths surrounding what HPV is, how it affects your body and what a diagnosis means, says obstetrician/gynecologist Kimberly Gecsi, MD.

HPV is actually an umbrella term for more than 150 strains of related viruses, most of which are benign.

“The vast majority of people exposed to HPV will have no harmful effects at all,” Dr. Gecsi says. “Our immune system takes care of it, just like every other virus.”

But in some cases, HPV infections can persist and lead to genital warts and cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina and anus in women. Indeed, HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, which affects more than 12,000 U.S. women a year and is the third-most common cancer among women worldwide.

To keep healthy, Dr. Gecsi offers these five things you need to know about HPV:

The HPV vaccine is recommended for women through age 26.

The CDC recommends that all boys and girls get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12. But it is also approved for children as young as age 9, and young adults through age 26. The vaccine is highly effectively and estimated to prevent about 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts. Children younger than age 15 who receive the vaccine need only two doses, while older teens and adults need three.

“If you didn’t get the shot in your teen or preteen years, it’s not too late,” Dr. Gecsi says.

While it can’t protect against the strains you’ve already been exposed to, it can help prevent future infections. The vaccine is still recommended even if you've had an abnormal pap smear or been exposed to HPV in the past, Dr. Gecsi says.

If you have HPV, you might never know it.

Though an estimated 79 million Americans have HPV, most people never develop symptoms. An exception to that is the appearance of genital warts, which can show up several weeks, or even several months, after the initial exposure. HPV also can cause cervical cell changes, which can lead to cancer. Doctors test for the presence of these precancerous or cancerous cells on the cervix during your pap smear, Dr. Gecsi says.

There is an HPV test.

“In screenings for cervical cancer, doctors use HPV tests to help determine which people are at high risk for cancer,” she says. But it’s not something you need to be checking for all the time.

Doctors tend to recommend the test if you had an abnormal pap or as part of a cervical exam, if you are older than age 30. To keep atop of your cervical health, the American Cancer Society recommends women get a pap test every three years, starting at age 21.

Women ages 30 to 65 have the option of getting a pap test combined with a HPV test every five years, or simply continue getting a pap test every three years.

Men aren't immune to HPV.

In addition to cancer of the cervix, some HPV strains can lead to cancers of the penis, anus and throat, as well as genital warts. Every year, nearly 9,300 men are affected by cancers caused by HPV, the CDC says. There is currently no HPV test available for men, but just like with women, most HPV infections in males go away on their own, Dr. Gecsi says.

Condoms can’t fully protect you against HPV.

Although condoms are effective at preventing STDs that are spread through bodily fluids, they can’t fully protect against HPV. That’s because HPV is spread via skin-to-skin contact.

“HPV can be carried on areas that aren't covered by a condom,” Dr. Gecsi says.

But that doesn’t mean you should abstain from using them, Dr. Gecsi says. They can still reduce the risk of passing genital HPV.

Kimberly Gecsi, MD is an obstetrician/gynecologist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center and University Hospitals Westlake Health Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Gecsi or any other University Hospitals doctor online.

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