Stop right now. Look around you. Do you have five people around you? If not picture you and four friends. Of this group of five individuals four of you will contract at least one strand of HPV during your life. That is right. Eighty percent of you will contract HPV. You could ask those same individuals you are around if they know what HPV is and I’d venture to say no one really knows; they might remember something about a shot, they might have heard something about it jokingly in a television show or movie, but can they describe what it is and why it is an issue? Mostly likely not.
What is it?
So, why don’t we start there and learn about HPV? HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus. There are over 150 strands of HPV and some of them are considered high risk strands. The high risk strands are considered high risk due to the direct link between these strands and cancers in men and women. HPV-related cancers include cervical, anal, oropharyngeal/oral cancers, penile, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. There are additional high risk strands which are linked to genital warts; all cases of genital warts are caused by HPV.
How does it spread?
HPV is spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact. That’s right. You don’t even have to have intercourse to spread HPV. Think about those times you have been with a partner and not had penetrative sex, not “added to your number” but you had a lot of intimate touching. You could have contracted HPV during that interaction. HPV can also be spread during vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
How do I know if I have HPV?
There are typically no symptoms of HPV contraction, this is why it is key for males and females to go for annual doctor visits. All women should be visiting a doctor annually for a wellness exam (including a pelvic exam); starting at the age of 21 the current guidelines indicate that women should start having a Pap test. The Pap test will determine if there are any abnormalities on the cervix, if there are abnormalities the same sample can be sent for an HPV test to determine if the woman has HPV. There are guidelines for testing that the doctors should follow. There is no screening available for men for HPV.
How do I prevent contracting HPV?
There are multiple ways to help reduce your risk of contracting HPV, one way is to get the HPV vaccine. There is currently a vaccine available up to the age of 26 which protects against 9 high risk strands 16, 18, 6, 11, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. These are the strands which are linked directly to cancer risks and genital warts. Even if you have potentially already been exposed to HPV it is important to get the HPV vaccine if you are within the age that it is available because it can protect you against additional strands you have not contracted. If you are above the age of 15 then the HPV vaccine is a series of shots and you must receive three shots. You can also utilize typical safe sex habits as condoms can help prevent spread of HPV, though it is not 100% effective because HPV lives on areas of the genitals which are not covered by condoms.
Where can I get more information?
If you are interesting in finding more information here are a few great resources for you: