While you may worry about contracting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV, which can lead to AIDS) or the herpes simplex virus (types 1 and 2), the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) is the human papilloma virus (HPV). About 79 million women and men in the U.S. are infected with HPV.
HPV comes in more than 100 varieties, including 14 that can cause cancer. Almost every sexually active adult will become infected with HPV at some point, some multiple times – unless they are vaccinated against the virus. However, about 90% of HPV cases clear on their own after two years.
Sanford White, MD, a compassionate and experienced OB/GYN in Somerset, New Jersey, encourages you to become more aware of HPV and its consequences. By getting vaccinated against or being tested regularly for this common infection, you can preserve your health and avoid the complications of the most serious types of HPV infection.
HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer
According to the World Health Organization, HPV causes almost all cases of cervical cancer. In the U.S. alone, almost 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and more than 4,000 die from it.
The simple Pap smear your doctor gives you every three years as part of your well-woman exam is designed to detect precancerous or cancerous changes in the cells on your cervix, which are caused by HPV. The cervix is the part of your uterus that descends into your vagina. If your Pap smear is abnormal, Dr. White may recommend :
- Another Pap smear
- Colposcopy exam and biopsy
- HPV test
If you have precancerous changes, Dr. White may be able to remove the aberrant cells in a simple in-office procedure. If he detects cancerous changes, he’ll refer you to an oncologist so you can get treatment. Cervical cancers that are caught early have the best outcomes, which is why you should never skip a Pap smear.
HPV causes other types of cancer
If you have anal or oral sex with someone who’s infected with HPV, you could develop anal cancer, or oropharyngeal cancer, which can affect your throat, tongue, and tonsils. An HPV infection can also cause cancer on your vulva or vagina, or on your partner’s penis.
Not everyone who’s infected with HPV will develop cancer. You’re more likely to suffer from the complications of HPV infection, including cancer, if your immune system is compromised by HIV/AIDs or other conditions.
HPV causes genital warts
If you notice small, cauliflower-like lesions on your genitals, you may have genital warts. All genital warts are caused by HPV. The types of HPV that cause genital warts are not the same types that cause cancer. However, you could be infected with more than one type of HPV.
Genital warts may be itchy or painful and make it difficult to urinate. If you’re pregnant, genital warts could complicate your delivery.
While genital warts can’t be cured, you can control the symptoms with various medications. Don’t use over-the-counter wart remedies, because they’re not formulated for your sensitive genital tissues.
You can get HPV without having intercourse
Although using a condom every time you have sex is essential for reducing your risk of contracting most STDs, condoms can’t prevent HPV transmission. Like the herpes virus, HPV is transmitted during intimate skin-to-skin contact. So even if you never get past foreplay, you could still be infected with HPV.
You can prevent HPV with a vaccine
When Gardasil9, the anti-HPV vaccine, was released, it was only available to people between the ages of 9 and 26. By the age of 26 or 27, most women and men have already been exposed to HPV, and if they haven’t developed complications, they may never do so.
However, recently the FDA approved its use for women and men from 27 to 45. In this age group, the vaccine was 88% effective in preventing:
- HPV infection
- Genital warts
- Precancerous lesions on the vagina and vulva
- Precancerous lesions on the cervix
- Cervical cancer
You may benefit from a vaccine if you’ve had a previous HPV infection, or if you engage in high-risk behavior, such as having multiple sexual partners or are with a partner who has multiple partners.