Chances are, if you have been sexually active in your lifetime, you have contracted (and likely spread) HPV (Human papillomavirus). No, not you? At least 8 out of 10 people will get or have already received a hearty helping of HPV. Most often it comes and goes without complication, but for many, HPV can become problematic if left untreated- especially for women.
The ‘common cold of the cervix’ is something we would all rather avoid, but in most instances, symptoms are non-existent or cause the more unfortunate genital warts (not to be confused with genital herpes) that can be removed usually without reoccurrence. While there is no cure for HPV, in up to 90% of cases, the immune system clears the virus away by itself within a year. For an unlucky cluster of people, certain strains of HPV can stick around and cause cancerous cell growth, in the cervix, anus or oral cavity.
While men cannot currently be tested for HPV and often show no signs of carrying the virus, they are susceptible to genital warts and certain cancers caused by the virus, particularly esophageal and anal. While high-risk strains of HPV can more commonly lead to cervical cancer, it is not surprising that oral and esophageal cancers caused by the virus are on the rise; oral sex is far less taboo in recent decades, and few partners use oral barriers during this exchange. While cancerous cell changes in the anal and oral cavities are much harder to screen, currently there are new HVP vaccines in development which may protect against mouth, throat and esophageal cancers.
Dr. Mary Johnston, Family Physician in Albany, NY, explains, “Most young people clear HPV on their own, but those who do not are at risk. Pap smears in women can detect the changes caused by HPV.”
In addition to detecting HVP through regular pap smears once sexually active, Gardasil is a vaccine against HPV, and it is recommended that all girls between the ages of 9 to 26 receive the series of 3 shots over a 6 month period; it is commonly given between the ages 11 and 13.
“It is important to start it before sexual activity begins,” Johnston points out, noting that many parents are reluctant to start their children at a young age, “Some parents do not want their children to have it as they fear it may represent in some way permission for sexual activity, and of course it is hard to think about your pre teen becoming sexually active.”
Recent studies have addressed these concerns, the American Academy of Pediatrics stating that the HPV vaccine does not lead to increased sexual activity among teens.
Regardless of your sexual status as a teen or pre teen, receiving the vaccine is a critical step to safeguarding your sexual and reproductive health for the future. Even if you are already sexually active or in a monogamous relationship, receiving the vaccine later in your teens and 20’s may prevent certain high-risk strains of HPV.
Other ways to avoid HPV include always wearing a condom during sex (other forms of birth control do not prevent the transmission of viruses) and once sexually active, receiving regular pap smears by your family practitioner or OBGYN.