Author: Roland Rodriguez
No one dreams of walking into his or her doctor’s office and hearing the words “you have been diagnosed with human papillomavirus, or HPV.” Unfortunately, this scenario is all too real.
HPV is the most common sexually-transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. In fact, it’s so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.
There are over 100 different kinds of HPV but only some of them can cause serious health problems like genital warts or cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva or anus.
Testing positive for HPV does not automatically mean you will get cancer. Some studies estimate that 50 percent of those infected with HPV will clear the virus within eight months— and 90 percent will be cured within two years. It’s only when your immune system isn’t able to fight off the infection that some strains of HPV can persist and possibly lead to cancer.
The number of human papilloma virus (HPV)-associated cancers in the United States has increased by 17 percent, to nearly 39,000 cases a year, according to a report released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While men cannot get HPV-linked cervical cancers, they are particularly vulnerable to HPV-related cancers of the mouth, tongue and throat, called oropharyngeal cancers. According to the new CDC report, the rates of mouth and throat cancers are more than four times higher among males than females.
In the past, people always felt that the boys needed to be vaccinated to protect the girls but, truthfully, the most effective way to prevent HPV: early vaccination.
Boys and girls are supposed to get three doses of the HPV vaccine — starting at age 11 or 12 because the vaccine works best before sexual activity begins.
The other benefit of giving it early is that our immune response is better, and that it may last longer.
Yet the latest statistic from the CDC shows that in 2014, only 40 percent of teenage girls received all three doses of the vaccine needed. In boys, that number is even lower: Only 22 percent of boys between 13 and 17 are properly vaccinated against HPV, increasing their chances for HPV-caused cancers later in life.
According to the CDC, the HPV vaccine — which is usually covered by insurance — is safe and not associated with serious side-effects of the HPV.
What are the signs, symptoms and health consequences of HPV?
In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. But when HPV does not go away, it can cause health problems like genital warts and cancer.
Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or groups of bumps in the genital area. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. A healthcare provider can usually diagnose warts by looking at the genital area.
Cervical cancer usually does not have symptoms until it is quite advanced, very serious and hard to treat. For this reason, it is important for women to get regular screening for cervical cancer. Screening tests can find early signs of disease so that problems can be treated early, before they ever turn into cancer.
Other HPV-related cancers might not have signs or symptoms until they are advanced and hard to treat. These include cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils.