The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. It is so prevalent that most people will get it at some point in their lives, says Gretchen Homan, MD, a pediatrician with Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, Kansas. 79 million Americans are infected with HPV.
There are 200 strains of HPV, but only about a dozen have been linked to cancer.
While most HPV infections show no symptoms and eventually go away on their own, sometimes the virus remains inside the body and can cause genital warts or cancer. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that someone is diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer every 20 minutes.
Cancers linked to HPV
“Basically, all cervical cancers are caused by HPV virus strains,” says Dr. Homan.
In addition, 91 percent of anal cancers and 72 percent of cancers of the throat, tongue and tonsils (oropharyngeal cancers) are caused by HPV.
HPV has also been linked to penile, vaginal and vulvar cancers.
How to prevent HPV
Fortunately, HPV can be prevented with a vaccine. Doctors recommend that boys and girls get vaccinated at age 11 or 12. Those who aren’t vaccinated can get catch-up shots up to age 26, or sometimes up to age 45.
And while practicing safe sex with condoms is always a good idea, they cannot provide complete protection against HPV since HPV can infect areas that aren’t covered by the condom.
How is HPV detected?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several tests that can detect the strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer in women. The CDC recommends that women 21 and older get the HPV test in certain cases as a follow-up to an abnormal Pap test. And, women 30 and older should get either a Pap test alone every three years, an HPV test every five years, or a Pap test and HPV test every five years.
Just because you test positive for HPV doesn’t mean you will get cancer. And, most of the time, problems that are detected early can be treated before they develop into cervical cancer. If you do test positive for the infection or have an abnormal Pap test, your doctor will do follow-up exams or perform a cervical biopsy to see if the cells are cancerous.
Unfortunately, there are no HPV tests available for men, and there is no routine screening to check for anal, penile or oral cancers unless a doctor sees the presence of genital warts, says Homan.
3 treatments for HPV
There aren’t any treatments for the HPV virus itself, but there are procedures doctors can perform to remove abnormal, precancerous cells before they grow into cervical cancer, including:
- Cryosurgery: a type of surgery that freezes the abnormal cell tissue.
- Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP): a procedure that uses a hot-wire loop to remove abnormal cell tissue.
- Surgical or laser vaporization conization: surgery that uses a scalpel and/or laser to eliminate a cone-shaped piece of cervical tissue.
Since removing the cells doesn’t necessarily kill the virus, you may need to get Pap tests more often to make sure the abnormal cells don’t grow back. Usually, the virus will go away by itself.
Benign respiratory tract tumors or genital warts caused by HPV may be treated with topical chemicals or drugs or removed surgically through excision or by cryosurgery, electrosurgery or laser surgery.
If you’re sexually active, talk to your doctor about the HPV test and whether it is right for you. And, if you have kids, talk to your pediatrician about getting the vaccine.
Sourcing: American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, CDC, American Sexual Health Association, American Medical Association