The chances are pretty high that you—or someone you know—is infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV). It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, currently affecting a whopping 79 million Americans, most of them in their late teens and early 20s.
In some cases, HPV infection can prove deadly, leading to an estimated 32,500 cases of cancer each year in both men and women.
Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and your loved ones.
Understand the virus
Rather than one specific virus, HPV is actually a group of more than 200 related viruses. More than forty of them can be spread through direct sexual contact, whether vaginal, anal or oral sex. These types of HPV are linked to cervical cancer and genital warts.
Before you panic, keep in mind that HPV is so common that 80 percent of people will get an HPV infection during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 90 percent of the time, HPV goes away within two years on its own.
Cancers caused by HPV:
- Cervical cancer- According to the CDC, about 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and 4,000 die from it
- Throat cancer- Around 10,100 men are diagnosed with HPV-related oropharyngeal (throat) cancer each year
- Other cancers- The remaining 8,000 cancers include vaginal and vulval cancer in women, penile cancer in men and anal cancer in both men and women
Signs to watch out for
“There are numerous signs and symptoms to watch out for, including warts (small bump or cluster of bumps) in the oral, genital or anal areas. Change in the color or thickness of the skin or itching in the above mentioned areas. Chronic hoarse throat is another sign. Unfortunately most people with high risk HPV don’t have symptoms, making regular checkups with a gynecologist or your primary physician so important,” said Dr. Tim Puckett, MD at Royal Palm OB/GYN.
Take Steps to Protect Yourself
It’s so important to take steps to protect yourself and avoid getting HPV, as sometimes symptoms don’t begin to develop until it’s too late.
The CDC recommends all pre-teens receive the HPV vaccine around age 11 or 12. It consists of two shots, spaced six to twelve months apart. The HPV vaccine protects against nine strains of the virus, including seven of the most common cancer-causing types as well as the two responsible for genital warts. Of the 32,500 cancers HPV causes in the U.S. every year, it’s thought that about 30,000 cases could have been prevented by getting the vaccine, according to the CDC.
All women between the ages of 21 and 65 should be screened for cervical cancer. Women in their 20s should get a PAP smear every three years.
Women over the age of 30 have two options:
- A PAP smear every three years
- Screening with a combination of both a PAP smear and HPV testing every five years
You can stop screening after age 65, if you don’t have a history of cervical cancer and if you’ve had either three negative PAP tests in a row, or two negative combination results within the previous ten years with the most recent one having been performed within the previous five years, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Get condoms and use them
The only way to protect yourself 100 percent against HPV is to avoid sex completely. But that may not be a realistic option for most people.
If you’re not in a mutually monogamous relationship, your next best bet is to always use condoms, even if you’re on other methods of birth control such as an IUD or oral contraceptives. Just keep in mind that since HPV can infect areas not covered by condoms, they don’t offer complete protection.
The Bottom Line
If you suspect you have HPV or some type of infection, don’t ignore it- make an appointment to see your Gynecologist or Primary Care Physician right away.
This content originally appeared on Sharecare.com.
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