Nearly 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, but the disease is virtually always preventable with vaccination and appropriate screening through pap and HPV tests.
HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a group of more than 150 related viruses. Each HPV virus in this large group is given a number called its HPV type. HPV is named for the warts (papillomas) some HPV types can cause. Other HPV types can lead to cancer. Men and women can get cancer of the mouth/throat, and anus/rectum caused by HPV infections. Men can also get penile HPV cancer. In women, HPV infection can also cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar HPV cancers. HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact through vaginal, oral, or anal intercourse.
Other HPV facts:
- Condoms don’t protect against HPV because they don’t cover all the skin
- Risk of exposure increases with the number of sexual partners
- 75-80 percent of sexually active adults will acquire HPV before age 50 (mostly when they’re between 15-25 years of age)
- The body usually takes care of itself, but in 10-20 percent of cases, HPV persists and requires medical attention
- It usually takes 20-25 years for an untreated HPV infection to cause cervical cancer
What is the HPV vaccine?
The HPV vaccine helps keep people from getting infected with HPV. It may also prevent mouth, throat, penile, and anal cancers. The vaccine doesn’t prevent any other types of sexually transmitted infections. Similar to other vaccines, it can help prevent infection, but doesn’t cure HPV in patients who have already acquired the disease.
Who should get the HPV vaccine?
It’s recommended that boys and girls get the vaccine between ages 9-26. For those who are 15 years and older, treatment consists of three vaccines over six months. Children younger than 15 years receive two vaccines six months apart.
It’s best to start the vaccine before becoming sexually active, as the treatment only works to prevent HPV, not to cure the infection. Talk to your provider, as he or she may still recommend the vaccine even if you’re already sexually active. It may still help you.
What are the side-effects of the HPV vaccine?
Side effects are minimal, but the injection may cause redness, swelling, or soreness at the site of the injection. Also, in rare cases it can cause the patient to pass out.
Do I still need a pap smear if I get the HPV vaccination?
It’s still recommended that women start receiving regular pap smears at 21 years of age to test for cervical changes and HPV. Depending on your results, you may need to have a pap smear every 1-3 years.
There is no test for HPV in the throat, anus, or penis.
What are the signs and symptoms of HPV?
Most people infected with HPV don’t experience signs or symptoms and usually never develop any problems from the infection. Scientists have identified more than 100 types of HPV. Forty of these are known to infect the cervix, and 15 are known to cause cervical cancer. Because there are so many types, HPV infections are classified on a scale between high and low risk. If you become infected with HPV, your provider will be able to tell you more. In any case, it’s important to follow your provider’s recommendations for regular check-ups.