Facts About HPV
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection worldwide — it affects most sexually active people at some point in their lives. Approximately 79 million people in the United States are infected right now, and about 14 million new cases are diagnosed each year. In many instances, the infection goes away without treatment and doesn’t cause trouble. But HPV infection can result in health problems, some of them serious.
The Bad News: Genital Warts and Cancer
HPV is actually a family of more than 150 viruses that can cause a wide range of symptoms and diseases. Commonly spread through vaginal, oral, or anal sex, HPV can make its way from person to person even when the infected party isn’t showing any symptoms.
The virus can also lie dormant for years before it causes the infected person to develop any health problems, making it difficult to pinpoint the time of transmission. People with weakened immune systems, such as people with HIV/AIDS, are more susceptible to infection. HPV itself is not treatable, but the conditions it can cause often are.
Some types of HPV infection result in the development of genital warts — small or large bumps on the genitals. Health care providers can usually diagnose these warts on sight. The warts can be itchy or painful, and they can come and go. In men, the warts can affect the following:
In women, warts tend to affect the inside or outside of the vagina or anus. The cervix can also be affected. Women are usually more prone to complications from genital warts.
Some strains of HPV can result in cancer. The structures affected can include:
- Back of throat
- Tonsils and base of tongue
HPV-related cancers can take years to develop, but they tend to be treatable when caught early. Regular Pap smears can help to detect cervical pre-cancer. If you develop an HPV-related cancer, your care team will work with you to develop a treatment plan.
The Good News: Vaccines and Condoms Prevent HPV
In recent years, scientists have created vaccines that can prevent against the diseases caused by HPV, including cancer. These vaccines are administered to 11 and 12-year-old girls and boys in a series of two shots, six to 12 months apart. If a child received his or her vaccines fewer than five months apart, a third dose is required. For a teenager older than 14, a series of three shots over six months will be given. People in their 20s who were not vaccinated early can receive catch-up vaccinations. People with compromised immune systems and gay or bisexual men can also benefit from vaccination.
The correct and consistent use of latex condoms, along with the maintenance of mutually monogamous sexual relationships, can also cut down on the risk of infection with HPV.
For more information, speak with your health care provider. To learn more about HPV-related cancer, visit UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.