You've probably heard a lot about human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, and wondered how it might affect you, what steps you may need to take to prevent it and why it's important to educate yourself.
HPV is quite common and 80 percent of those who are sexually active are infected with HPV at some point in their lives. However, most never know they have the virus. HPV is unique in that the immune system of the majority of people who develop the virus clear it from the system without treatment or lingering problems, and ultimately will test negative for the virus, said Erika Hamilton, MD associate director of the breast and gynecologic research program at Sarah Cannon Research Institute. [i]
[ii] However, it's prevalence doesn't make it something to be ignored since certain strains of the more than 150 types of HPV, specifically 6, 11, 16 and 18, are linked to cancer, and strains 16 and 18 are implicated in cervical cancer.
Both men and women are susceptible to HPV-related cancer. In men, some types of HPV can cause genital warts, other strains can cause cancers of the penis, anus, or oropharynx (back of the throat, including base of the tongue and tonsils.) The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancer.
[i] Want to know more about HPV?
Here are answers to the top seven questions:
- How common is HPV?
About 6 million cases of genital HPV infections occur each year in the United States, according to Cancer.gov. Also, you can be exposed to HPV but not become infected or develop symptoms.[iii]
- How do I get HPV?
HPV is spread via skin to skin contact and most often HPV is spread during sexual contact.
- Will I have any symptoms?
Most HPV cases are not associated with symptoms. Patients will likely have no itching, burning or irritation like other types of sexually transmitted diseases but some do cause genital warts.
- How should I be checked? When is it diagnosed?
For women, your doctor can test you for HPV at the same time they do your PAP test using a simple swab. If you are 30 years or older, your doctor may also use the HPV test along with the Pap smear to screen for cervical cancer.[vi] The results of the HPV test may take two to three weeks.[vii] If it comes back positive, your doctor will also tell you what type of HPV you have. There are currently no HPV screening tests for men.[ii] [iii] However, if you notice a warts, blisters, sores, ulcers, white patches, or other abnormal areas on your penis, you should consult your doctor, even if the spot doesn't hurt, for a diagnosis.
- How is it treated?
There is no treatment for HPV in men or women, although the genital warts caused by the virus can be treated with medicine, removed (surgery), or frozen off. If left untreated, genital warts may go away, stay the same, or grow in size or number.[iv] [v If you have one of the lower-risk versions, said Dr. Hamilton, your doctor may recommend a follow-up test in a year. If it's a higher risk version, strain16 or 18, the follow-up interval may be sooner. "That's why it's important that you know what the result [of your test] was and what type of monitoring is required."
- Once it goes away, can I get it again?
One case of HPV doesn't give you lifelong immunity. Even after it's cleared your system, you can get the same strain or a different one if you have sex with an infected partner.
- How can I protect myself from HPV-related cancer?
Refraining from any sexual activity is the surest way to prevent genital HPV. If you are sexually active, you can reduce your risk by using condoms and being in a monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner.[viii]
Two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix , have been developed and approved for women and girls ages 9 to 26, to prevent the types of HPV linked to cervical cancer. "These vaccines protect against 70 to 80 percent of cervical cancers, but we are talking about a risk reduction , not a risk elimination ," said Dr. Hamilton. "Also, just because you get the vaccine doesn't mean you can't get another type of HPV that the vaccine doesn't protect you against."
Gardasil is also approved for males 26 and younger to vaccinate them against the types of HPV linked to problems in men. It prevents the four common HPV types: two that cause most genital warts and two that cause cancers, including anal cancer, and likely against other HPV-related cancers, like cancers of the penis and oropharynx (back of throat, including base of tongue and tonsils). But while it protects against new HPV infections, it doesn't cure existing cases of HPV infections or disease (like genital warts).
However, even if you're beyond the recommend age for the vaccine, you might also be able to receive the HPV vaccine, as long as you've tested negative for the virus. "This is something to discuss with your doctor," said Dr. Hamilton.
CDC , Genital HPV Infection Ð Fact Sheet
CDC , Human Papillomavirus: Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases
CDC , HPV and Men, Fact Sheet
Cancer.gov , Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccines