HPV is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection. Seventy-nine million Americans—mostly young adults in their late teens and early twenties — will become infected with HPV, or human papillomavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is so common that almost everyone who is sexually active will get HPV at some point if they don’t get the HPV vaccine.
What Is HPV?
HPV is a group of related viruses that can cause warts (on the palms of hands, soles of feet or genitals) and others can cause cancers. Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV, which is spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex with an infected person. It also can be spread through skin-to-skin contact such as shaking hands after poor hygiene or contact with an infected area.
Symptoms may appear years after you’ve contracted the virus. Most people don’t develop symptoms and may never know they’ve had the infection—and that makes the virus easier to spread.
Symptoms of HPV
Your doctor can only check for certain types of HPV (most commonly on a Pap smear). There is no blood test or other tests for genital warts other than a physical exam by your physician. Genital warts usually go away on their own within 12 months. But for some people, they do not go away and even can lead to cancer.
The first symptoms of genital warts may be a bump or small bumps in the genital or anus area. They may go away on their own or increase in number. Your doctor has several ways to remove warts, including prescription medicines, cryotherapy, cautery and surgically removing them.
Certain types of HPV can cause cervical cancer as well as cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus and the base of the tongue, tonsils and throat. Women may first find out they have HPV after getting abnormal results from a Pap test. Others may not find out until cancer symptoms develop.
How to Avoid HPV and Its Complications
Even though HPV occurs frequently, you can avoid—or at least reduce your risk —of contracting it by:
- Getting the HPV vaccine.
- Abstaining from sex. For most people, this is not a realistic option for a lifetime and does not completely protect you, but it does drastically reduce your risk of contracting the infection.
- Using latex condoms correctly every time you have sex reduces your chances of getting HPV. However, HPV can affect areas not covered by a condom, so this protection isn’t foolproof.
- Being in a monogamous relationship, which reduces your exposure to the disease.
- Being screened for cervical cancer if you are a woman between the ages of 21 and 65.
- Not smoking. Your immune system’s ability to fight off the HPV infection decreases when you smoke while your risk for disease and cancer increases dramatically.
The HPV vaccine can protect against the virus and the diseases it causes. The CDC recommends vaccines for:
- Boys and girls 11 or 12 years old
- Boys and men through age 21 and girls and women through age 26, if they haven’t already received the vaccine
- Gay or bisexual men through age 26
- Men and women with compromised immune systems through age 26, if they did not get vaccinated earlier
HPV complications can range from mildly annoying to life-threatening. By protecting yourself through vaccinations and lifestyle changes, you can reduce your likelihood of contracting and spreading this disease.
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