You probably know the human papillomavirus (HPV) is the leading cause of cervical cancer. You may also know that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), and most people in the United States will get it at some point in their lives. That sounds scary, especially if you’re the parent of a teen or preteen, but how worried should you be about HPV and cervical cancer? And, what can you do about it?
The human papillomavirus is really a collection of more than 200 viruses, most of which are harmless. Some can cause common warts or plantar warts, and a smaller subset of strains causes genital warts. Some high-risk strains can cause cancer, commonly cervical cancer, but also vulvar, anal, penile and mouth/throat cancers.
With all the hype about HPV, you may not realize this virus is different than other STIs you may be thinking about. For the majority of people, it doesn’t stick around. Your body develops antibodies and fights off the infection within a year or two. Most of the time, you won’t even know you had it, because most HPV types don’t cause symptoms.
When it comes to teens, it’s important for them understand the prevalence of this infection — about one in four people in the United States is currently infected, based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates. The virus spreads easily through sexual activity, and there’s no treatment for the virus, only prevention. So teaching them about making smart decisions for their sexual health is key.
HPV and Cervical Cancer Prevention
If HPV isn’t that serious, should you and your family really be worried? The short answer: yes. It’s serious enough to warrant taking steps to protect against an infection.
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, with two strains of the virus, 16 and 18, being the main culprits. Although most HPV infections go away on their own, sometimes they persist. When the virus sticks around, it can change cells in the cervix into precancerous cells. Sometimes those cells need treatment to keep them from becoming cancer.
With early detection methods and vaccination, no one needs to die from cervical cancer. Changes to the cells happen over time and can be treated when found early. That’s why regular screening is so important. Precancer and cervical cancer often doesn’t have any physical signs or symptoms. It’s only found through a Pap test. Women should have a Pap test every three years up to age 30. After age 30, women should have a combined Pap and HPV test every five years.
Prevention at a Young Age
Make sure your teenage daughter is comfortable going to the gynecologist, especially if it’s her first time. Let her know what to expect, have her brainstorm a list of questions to ask and ensure she trusts her doctor. Her appointment should feel like a safe space to talk about safe sex, HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases or infections.
In addition to regular screenings, the HPV vaccine is the best way to prevent cervical and other HPV-related cancers. Both boys and girls are able to contract and spread the virus, so the vaccine is recommended for both genders starting at age 11 or 12. Anyone up to age 26 who hasn’t had the virus may also get vaccinated. The vaccine prevents HPV types 16 and 18, as well as five other types known to cause cancer and two types that cause genital warts. Talk to your family’s doctors about the vaccine when your children reach adolescence.
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