Most people don’t like to talk about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), as they often carry a negative social stigma. If you are one of the approximately 14 million people in the United States who will be infected this year with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection (STI), there’s no need to be embarrassed. We’re here to help clear up the confusion and break the stigma.
With a staggering number of people affected by this one STI alone, we decided to take the time to talk about what HPV is, associated health issues, prevention, and dispel some myths concerning HPV.
What is HPV?
“Human Papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC further reports that about 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. HPV is transmitted via anal, vaginal, and oral sex with an infected person, and it may also spread through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person during sex.
Are There Any Health Problems or Symptoms with HPV?
For many people, HPV may never present visible symptoms or cause any apparent health issues. This invisibility means that some people may never know they are infected, and it may be difficult to know exactly when someone contacted HPV. In most cases, HPV goes away on its own within two years, as reported by the CDC.
There are over 200 different strains of HPV which are divided into two groups: low-risk (genital warts) and high-risk (cancer). So, health issues associated with HPV vary depending on the specific type of strain.
Genital Warts: Warts are a bump or a group of bumps located on the genital area and may be caused by 12 different HPV types. Warts aren’t dangerous and can easily be removed in the same way you would remove a hand or foot wart. Symptoms of genital warts may include pain, irritation, discomfort, or itching.
It’s important to note that low-risk HPV that causes genital warts is not the same as the high-risk HPV that causes cancer.
Cancer: 13 HPV types can cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and other gynecological cancers. For both women and men, cancers caused by HPV can take years to develop. High-risk HPV usually doesn’t initially have any symptoms, but if it turns to cancer, the symptoms vary depending on the strain. Symptoms can include pain, itching, discharge, change in color or thickness of the skin, or a lump or mass.
How do you prevent HPV?
Although there is no cure for HPV, it is a preventable disease! There are a couple of things you can do to lower the chances of getting HPV during your life.
- Practice Safe Sex. Safe sex is an essential part of being gynecologically healthy. Some ways to be safe include being in a mutually monogamous relationship or by using condoms or dental dams when engaging in sexual activities.
- Get vaccinated. The HPV vaccine can protect against low-risk and high-risk types. At Metro OBGYN, we offer Gardasil, an HPV vaccine. Gardasil is a three-shot series for people from 9 to 26 years old and helps protect against two high-risk types of HPV, 90% of genital wart cases, 70% against cervical cancer cases, 70% of vaginal cancer cases, and around 50% of vulvar cancer cases.
- Get Screened. Preventative screenings are an essential part of being healthy, as they screen for abnormal cells and cancer. There are two standard tests: a Pap Smear and an HPV test. For women, pap smears should be done starting at 21, and then every three years until age 65. Between the ages of 30 and 65, women should have a pap smear plus an HPV test every three years. Screenings are not a diagnosis, so your provider will help with the next steps if test results show abnormalities. For men, screening is not suggested unless you are at risk for anal cancer. Please see your healthcare provider if you are concerned about cancer.
Myths about HPV
Because of the myths surrounding STDs, they often carry a social stigma. When it comes to HPV, these misconceptions bring misinformation and may cause people to experience anxiety. Below we address 6 common myths about HPV.
1. HPV is a Recurring Virus and Doesn’t Go Away.
As HPV is the most common STI and is notorious for remaining dormant, it’s possible that you may have recurring symptoms. Those with weakened immune systems may show signs of a flare up, but if your system is healthy, you most likely won’t show signs of recurrence and the infection should reside on it own within a few years.
2. Genital Warts can Develop into Cancer.
Generally, genital warts are benign. And, the CDC has found no evidence to suggest that “the presence of genital warts or their treatment is associated with the development of cervical cancer.” If you think you may have genital warts, visit your healthcare provider. Your provider will be able to offer the best treatment options for you.
3. Only Women can Contract HPV.
The CDC says that roughly 4 in 5 women aged 50 will have been infected with HPV at some point in their life. But, women are not the only ones who contract HPV. This virus is also prevalent in men. It’s estimated that roughly 50% of sexually active men will have HPV at some point in their life. While men will not get cervical cancers from HPV, they are at risk for genital cancers, and men can show symptoms of genital warts, just like women.
4. The HPV Vaccine is Only for Women.
The HPV vaccine is ideal for young adults who plan to have sex, young adults who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and young adults who have immunocompromising conditions.
If you did not receive HPV vaccines when you were younger, there are also catch-up vaccines. Catch-up vaccines are recommended for men through the age of 21, and for women through the age of 26.
5. Condoms Prevent HPV 100% of the Time.
Condoms are an effective method of preventing pregnancy, but they are not guaranteed to protect you from certain STIs like HPV or herpes, which spread through skin-to-skin contact of intimate areas. However, using condoms can reduce risk for HPV infections and related diseases, prevent the spread of other STIs, and prevent unintended pregnancy.
6. There is No Testing for HPV.
Unfortunately, there is no way to test for low-risk HPV, but there are tests for high-risk types. Women 30 years and older can have an HPV test used as a follow-up for a pap test. The HPV test identifies around 14 different high-risk types of HPV.
Schedule a Screening at Metro OBGYN
STIs often have a negative stigma surrounding them, but it’s important to discuss any concerns you may have. Be open and honest with your provider about what you’re experiencing and they will provide you with the information you need to protect future partners and take care of yourself.
Your gynecological health is important and screening for STIs is a great way to keep up on your well-being. Schedule an appointment with a provider at Metro OBGYN to learn more about the steps you can take to prevent contracting HPV.