HPV: 8 Things Doctors Want You to Know
- HPV Explained by the Doctors Who Treat ItHPV, short for human papillomavirus, is a group of viruses, not just one type. HPV infection occurs through skin-to-skin contact, and can be spread by any type of sexual contact. Experts estimate that almost 80 million people in the United States have an active HPV infection, with 14 million new cases occurring each year. Unfortunately, there is no HPV treatment so we must rely on prevention. Learn about the connection between human papillomavirus and cancer, and what HPV doctors would like you to know about the infection and the HPV vaccine.
- 1. “Most people don’t know how common HPV infection really is.”With 14 million new cases of HPV each year in the U.S., it is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the country. “Most adults who are sexually active will, at some point, have HPV,” explains Jessica K. Lee, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore and assistant professor, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Most people fight it off and can eliminate it from their system on their own…especially if they’re young and healthy.”
- 2. “People who have weak immune systems have a harder time fighting HPV.”The healthier you are, the better your chance of fighting off the virus. Dr. Lee says, “We are more worried about people with HIV or people who are immunocompromised in some way.” Some medications, like long-term corticosteroids or chemotherapy, affect how well your immune system works. Not having your spleen reduces your ability to fight infections too. And some diseases also put you at higher risk. “Smokers also tend not to heal as fast from this virus,” adds Lee. “So, those are our biggest concerns in terms of people being able to fight off this virus.”
- 3. “HPV can cause cancer—for both men and women.”Many people have heard that HPV can cause cervical cancer, but HPV infection can also cause cancer in men. “It's clear that men get HPV-related cancers,” says Mark Hunter, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Missouri Health Care in Columbia, Miss. “They get HPV-related penile cancer, HPV-related throat cancer, and oral cancers. Most definitely the HPV virus is spread from person to person through male carriers.” For this reason, it’s equally important that boys receive the HPV vaccine—not just girls.
- 4. “You won’t know if you have HPV until you get genital warts or cancer.”Unless you develop genital warts, you may not know you have HPV. HPV can also cause several cancers but by the time you have symptoms, they may be quite advanced. HPV doesn’t show up in a blood test, but doctors can test for it in a Pap smear sample. Over 90% of anal cancer is caused by HPV. Most penile cancers (over 60%) are also caused by HPV. For women, most vaginal cancers (75%) and vulvar cancers (70%) are HPV-related. “I lose many young women to cervical cancer, and that just shouldn't be happening,” says Dr. Hunter. Pap smears can detect early changes in cells that could be precancerous, caused by HPV.
- 5. “HPV, itself, is not cancer.”Having HPV may be scary, but it doesn’t automatically mean you have cancer. “When people think of HPV, they may sometimes think they already have cancer, but that's not the case,” explains Lee. “The reason why we do Pap smears is to catch even mild changes on the spectrum on the way to pre-cancer. “We know HPV is almost 100% responsible for cervical cancer, but just because you have HPV does not mean you have cervical cancer.” It’s very possible that you only have the very early stages, when the cells are just abnormal. There are more than 150 types of HPV, and only a fraction of them have cancer-causing potential.
- 6. “The HPV vaccine is safe and effective for preventing several types of cancer.”“We have absolutely no evidence that the HPV vaccine is associated with any significant developmental issues, or with any other type of diseases that parents need to worry about,” says Hunter. But the earlier it’s given, the better. “It is true that the younger a person receives the vaccine, the more robust the immune response is,” Hunter explains. “It is more effective to have the vaccine at a younger age and before the introduction of sexual intercourse—before a person has been introduced to multiple HPV strains. But, it is still protective and still effective after the age of 18, and should certainly be considered well into adulthood.”
- 7. “The HPV vaccine doesn’t promote sexual activity.”Some parents believe that by offering their children the HPV vaccine, they are condoning sexual behavior among their children, even at a young age. “[Another misconception about the HPV vaccine] is that if I vaccinate my child, they're going to be more sexually promiscuous and that's not the case, we find,” says Lee. It’s important to keep in mind that not all sexual encounters are voluntary. Vaccination against the HPV virus provides an added layer of protection for someone who may be sexually assaulted or pressured into sex when he or she isn’t ready.
- 8. “It’s not too late to be vaccinated, even if you’re in your 40s.”“The vaccine is now approved well past the age of 18,” says Hunter. The vaccine is now approved up to 45 years old for both men and women. Although it is best to receive the vaccine before you become sexually active, “I would urge women to seek out this vaccine and to get it themselves, to take charge of their own healthcare, take charge of their health future, and seek this vaccine wherever it might be found—and then get it for your children.”
HPV: 8 Things Doctors Want You to Know About Human Papillomavirus