Everything You Need to Know About HPV

Neeru Singh, MD
December 5, 2020
4 min read

Most people, especially those who are sexually active, will be exposed to Human Papillomavirus (HPV) at some point in their life. However, it wasn’t until very recently that the public even knew what it was or how to prevent it.

79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV according to the CDC.

What is HPV?

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a tiny, double-stranded DNA virus that has more than 120 varieties. It is a common virus that is ubiquitous in the environment. The virus is mostly transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, sexual intercourse, and oral sex. Your risk of contracting HPV increases with your number of sexual partners or having sex with someone who has a higher number of sexual partners. Condoms may help prevent transmission, but they are not 100% preventive. You can also be exposed to HPV in other ways. For example, sharing a towel with an infected person or coming into contact with an object that touched an infected wart can increase your chances of getting HPV.

While HPV infections are common, the good news is that our immune system clears the majority of HPV infections within one to two years. To help combat HPV, it’s important to maintain a healthy immune system by eating healthy, practicing good hygiene, engaging in a productive stress reduction routine, and not smoking. Smoking significantly increases the length of an HPV infection and also decreases the probability of clearing a cancer-causing HPV strain.

Does HPV Cause Cancer?

Some types of HPV cause warts that are easily treatable while other types cause more serious diseases such as cervical, anal, penile, and vaginal cancer, and even oropharynx (throat) cancer. The CDC reports that HPV is the cause of 35,900 cancer cases per year in the United States alone. Recent statistics suggest HPV causes 90% of cervical cancer cases and between 60–70% of throat cancer cases. Thankfully, a vaccine can prevent most of the cancers caused by HPV, and cervical cancer can further be prevented by regular screening.

Warts caused by HPV can appear anywhere on the body and vary in appearance. Plantar warts, or warts on the feet, are painful and thick. Warts on the hands, face, or scalp are usually pink, white, or brown, firm, small, and painless. Genital warts are usually pink, painless, and have a cauliflower-like appearance. Warts usually go away over time or with an over-the-counter treatment. You can also visit a doctor and have them surgically removed or frozen off. While you can see warts, there are usually no symptoms when it comes to HPV-linked cancers until the late stages. Since symptoms are rare, screening is crucial.

Why Screening is Crucial

Pap smears save lives. In fact, the rate of cervical cancer deaths is much higher in countries where people do not have access to regular pap smears. In the United States, it’s recommended women start getting screened at age 21, and then every three years after each normal test result. If you are between the ages of 30–65, your doctor may give you the option of getting a Pap smear or an HPV test ( which only tests for the presence of HPV), or doing both. People over the age of 65 should discuss their testing options with their doctor.

The Pap test (or smear) is the standard screener for precancerous changes in the cervix. The doctor collects a sample of cells around the cervix and tests for precancerous changes in a pathology lab. If the test returns positive for precancerous changes, in most cases, the person can be treated.

Getting an HPV Vaccine Young

There are also highly effective HPV vaccines available to help prevent cervical cancer and most cases of genital warts. The CDC recommends boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 12 receive two doses of the vaccine. People between the ages of 13 and 26 can also get the vaccine, but the vaccine is not as effective for those over 26. It has been found that the vaccine is most effective if given to a person before he or she becomes sexually active. Once a person becomes sexually active and is exposed to HPV, the vaccine is less effective. Also, and though many parents are concerned, there is no evidence the vaccine increases sexual behavior or leads to sexual disinhibition. There is also no evidence the vaccine reduces condom use, increases rates of pregnancy, or other STDS. The vaccine does, however, have a good safety profile, can decrease HPV-related cancers by 90%, and longitudinal studies suggest the vaccine provides long-lasting immunity that doesn’t weaken over time. However, the vaccine does not prevent every strain that causes cancer, which is why it is so important to be screened regularly.

HPV can be a persistent virus that leads to warts and several types of cancer. The good news is we have effective screening tools and vaccines to help prevent the serious health consequences of an HPV infection. The important thing is to be proactive. Talk to your doctor if you are interested in getting a screening test or the vaccine.

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Neeru Singh, MD

Neeru Singh, MD, is a Medical Director at Carbon Health. As a primary care physician, she enjoys educating and guiding patients on important health decisions.

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