STIs are more common than people think, especially HPV. Not all STIs are treated the same way or have the same symptoms, so it’s important to understand the differences. You may have heard about HPV leading to cancer, but in this article we’ll discuss how cancer is a less likely outcome of HPV.
What is HPV?
HPV, which stands for human papillomavirus, is an STI that can cause genital warts and in some cases, it can cause cancer. For most people, HPV does not have symptoms and goes away on its own.
How common is HPV?
HPV is the most common STI in the United States. According to the CDC, about 13 million Americans, including teens, get HPV each year. Most sexually active people will contract HPV in their lifetime. HPV can affect anyone, regardless of gender.
Should I be worried if I have HPV?
Most of the time, HPV is not a cause for concern. It can have little to no symptoms and most people who are sexually active will get it in their lifetime. It’s less common for HPV to lead to something more serious like cancer. However, HPV can cause abnormalities in the cervix called dysplasia, which is a form of pre-cancer. Having routine Pap smears is important because your doctor can detect these pre-cancers at a time when they are 100% treatable. These can then be removed to prevent cancer from ever developing.
How is HPV spread?
HPV is spread by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with another person who has HPV. A person with HPV can pass the infection to someone even if they have no symptoms.
What are symptoms of HPV?
For many people, HPV will have no symptoms, or symptoms may appear years after an exposure. Some people may develop genital warts from low-risk HPV infections. The exact look of the warts may vary; they may appear flat, raised, alone, or in a cluster.
Do genital warts mean cancer is developing?
No, if you experience HPV symptoms like warts, this does not mean you have cancer. However, Pap smears are vital to screen and prevent you from developing cervical cancer. During a Pap smear, a doctor will check for abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix that may indicate a pre-cancer, also called dysplasia. When caught early, cervical cancer is treatable and curable. In the U.S., high-risk HPVs are responsible for nearly all cases of cervical cancer, making Pap smears incredibly important to detect early and treatable abnormalities. Once cervical cancer becomes advanced (the cancer cells have spread away from the cervix), there is no cure for this type of cancer.
How do you treat HPV?
At this time, there is not a treatment for the virus itself. Symptoms like genital warts can be managed with your doctor through medication. Pre-cancer of the cervix (dysplasia) can be treated with a surgical procedure, laser ablation (removing with a laser beam), or cryotherapy (using cold temperatures to eliminate the pre-cancer cells). Cervical cancer can also be treated, typically with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
How can you prevent HPV?
The Gardisal vaccine helps prevent against 9 HPV types and is safe and effective. It is recommended for preteens to get the vaccine, starting at age 9. It is best if you get the vaccine by the time you approach 11-12 years of age but this is good up to age 26. For anyone older than 26, the vaccine may provide less benefits because people are likely already exposed to HPV if they’re sexually active, but you can still discuss the option with your doctor. Routine screening with Pap smears also looks for the presence of high-risk HPV strains. People who are 21 to 29 years old should have a Pap test every 3 years. Once you’re older than 29, your doctor may recommend changing the frequency.
Additionally, using external and internal condoms the correct way during sex can help reduce your chance of HPV and other STIs.
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