The human papillomavirus (HPV) is actually not just one virus but a term used to describe over 150 different viruses. Some of these viruses do not have any symptoms, others cause genital warts or cancer. HPV is responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer and can also increase your risk of developing cancer of the vulva, penis, head, neck and anus. Learning about HPV can help you protect yourself. The following are facts about HPV you might not know:
- Most people who are sexually active will get or be exposed to HPV sometime in their life. Most of the time, your immune system will clear the infection, although this can sometimes take several years.
- There is a vaccine, for both males and females, to help prevent HPV. The vaccine should be taken prior to becoming sexually active and can be administered to girls as young as nine years old and is approved for boys as young as eleven years old. It currently is given in three doses although some research has shown that even one dose can offer protection from HPV. The vaccine is not recommended for those over 26 years old as chances are they have already been exposed to HPV.
- HPV can remain dormant in your system for years. If you are told you have HPV, you can't assume your present partner is to blame, you could have contracted HPV many years prior but it didn't show up until now.
- Smoking can increase your risk of developing HPV related cancer. Because smoking weakens your immune system, the HPV virus can continue to grow. Quitting smoking provides many health benefits, including allowing your immune system to strengthen and better protect you against viruses, including HPV.
- HPV is mostly associated with girls, however, males can also contract HPV. Not only do men "carry" the virus and spread it sexually, it causes genital warts in both men and women and some researchers believe it contributes to head and neck cancers in men. The vaccine can help reduce the spread of HPV and offers men health benefits as well.
- There is no treatment for HPV. If you do have HPV, the virus needs to clear your system on it's own. When HPV causes cancer, the cancer cells is treated, however, the HPV itself is not treated.
- Although there are more than 150 different types of HPV, only 40 are spread through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex.
- One type of HPV can cause warts in the throat, which can cause hoarseness, chronic coughing and breathing problems. The warts can be surgically removed, however, they often come back.
- Even if you have had the vaccine, doctors still recommend that women, beginning at the age of 21, have Pap smears, which look for abnormal cells on the cervix. Although HPV is known to cause most cervical cancers, it does not cause all and Pap smears can provide early detection of other cancers.
- Condoms can help prevent the spread of HPV. If you haven't been vaccinated, condoms should be used anytime you have sex. However, areas not covered by the condom can still be infected with HPV. Safe sex practices can greatly reduce your chances of contracting HPV but they can't protect you completely.
For more information:
"Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet," Updated 2015, February 23, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
"HPV and Men - Fact Sheet," Updated 2015, January 28, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
"What Is HPV?" Updated 2015, January 22, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention