Being Well

Understand HPV and What You Need to Know to Prevent Cancer

Minimize your chances of getting HPV and/or HPV-related cancers by limiting the number of sexual partners you have, using proper protection and disclosing sexual health histories before getting intimate with someone new. Also, consider the vaccine.

With all the new information and preventative measures out there, it’s difficult to figure out exactly what human papillomavirus (aka HPV) actually is. Is it a form of cancer or a sexually transmitted disease? Does it lead to cancer? Are only women affected? Arming yourself with the correct information means you’re better equipped to prevent, identity and deal with it.

It’s a collection of more than 200 similar viruses. They’re typically separated into two groups: those that lead to warts and those that cause cancer. A large percentage of HPV can be spread through direct sexual contact, primarily through vaginal, anal and oral sex. According to the National Cancer Institute, it’s the most common sexually transmitted infection, as more than 80 percent of sexually active men and women will get it at some point in their lives.

Which Cancers Do These Viruses Cause?

Higher risk types, such as type 16 and 18, cause the majority of HPV-related cancers. According to the National Cancer Institute, almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by type 16 and 18, as well as nearly all anal cancers. These viruses are also a catalyst for throat and mouth cancers. It can also be responsible for causing more rare cancers, such as penile or vaginal. Low-risk strands, such as type 6 and 11 on the other hand, don’t lead to cancer but do cause skin warts around your genitalia, anus, mouth and throat.

What Are the Risk Factors?

Since this virus is transmitted mainly through skin-to-skin sexual contact, anyone who is sexually active is at risk. According to the World Health Organization, it’s more common in people with multiple sex partners, who use tobacco products and who are immunosuppressed. Unfortunately, it’s impossible at the moment to tell who’s specific HPV will lead to cancer, as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lays out. While most infected people don’t have symptoms and it goes away without impacting your health (warts are the most common one to look for), you may not know you have it and it’s hard to figure out when you contracted it.

How Can You Prevent Infections and Cervical Cancer?

Limiting the number of sexual partners you have and using condoms consistently can reduce your risk of becoming infected. For women, staying up to date on your Pap smears will help prevent cervical cancer and can usually detect if you have it. Unfortunately there are no effective screening tests for men. Yet the best form of prevention is to get vaccinated. Gardasil®, Gardasil® 9 and Cervarix® are FDA-approved vaccines to prevent an infection, and the National Cancer Institute recommends that all boys and girls around 11-years-old be vaccinated. As studies and the CDC note, vaccination completion is low. Make sure you receive all necessary shots, and if you have children, discuss the vaccination with their doctor.

Unfortunately, if you’re infected, there’s no treatment currently. There are, however, therapies available to suppress the effects of your infection. For genital warts, there are topical chemicals or minor surgical procedures that can remove the warts. Precancerous cervical changes can be removed before turning into cancerous lesions.

If you’re sexually active and concerned about acquiring HPV, you should speak with your doctor about getting the vaccine. You should also practice safe sex and discuss sexual histories and health with your partner.

Concerned about HPV and Cancer?

Here’s a fact sheet by the National Cancer Institute.

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Larry Istrail
Larry Istrail