Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common sexually-transmitted infection (STI) for both men and women. Many strains of HPV can be prevented with a simple vaccine, but regular health screenings are just as important when it comes to protecting your long-term sexual health and wellness.
What is HPV?
HPV is a viral infection that spreads through skin-to-skin contact. There are different varieties of the infection, but a majority are transmitted via sexual contact. HPV typically affects the genitals, mouth, or throat of those infected. Although several HPV strains are preventable, the disease still affects over 79 million Americans, many of whom are in their late teens and early twenties.
How Do I Know if I Have HPV?
HPV can be and often is asymptomatic (symptom-less), making it that much more difficult for individuals to identify the condition in themselves and increasing their risk of infecting others. As a result, individuals who are infected are often unaware until they receive abnormal results during routine health screenings. While some HPV patients develop external conditions genital warts, many people with HPV live the rest of their lives without experiencing any symptoms.
Regrettably, the most noticeable symptoms of HPV are actually symptoms of more serious conditions that can develop because of it. HPV is the leading cause of a number of cancers in the cervix, anus, and reproductive organs. These cancers can cause pain, development of lumps or sores, or bleeding on or around the genital area. Those who experience these symptoms should contact their healthcare provider immediately.
Prevention, Treatment, and Support
For those looking to reduce their personal risk of infection, good news: you’ve already taken the first step. Prevention starts with awareness and with learning the steps you can take to protect yourself and others. There is a great deal of misinformation about the safety of the HPV vaccine, its effectiveness and side effects, so it is crucial to separate fact from fiction and to talk to your health care provider about making informed personal health decisions.
Young teens and any adults who are sexually active should take the following preventative measures:
Get Vaccinated – Getting the HPV vaccine is the best thing you can do to protect yourself from the disease. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends vaccination for all young teens between the ages of 11 and 12, and emphasizes the benefits of the vaccine for young adults and those in their early twenties as well. The HPV vaccine protects against at least nine different strains of the disease, including several strains that increase your risk for genital skin conditions and sexually-transmitted cancers.
Getting the vaccine can help protect against contracting a variety of dangerous STIs like HIV and chronic forms of hepatitis B and C. The HPV vaccine can also protect men and women from at least nine different strains of the disease, including several strains that increase your risk for genital skin conditions and sexually-transmitted cancers.
It is important to point out that for adults under the age of 45, getting vaccinated may still be an effective option to consider. While early vaccination is preferable, the vaccine is an important and effective preventive measure for individuals of all ages. The vaccine cannot negate or treat any pre-existing strains of the virus, but it can still protect you from contracting new strains in the future.
Practice Safe Sex – If you are sexually active, and even if you have received the HPV vaccine, you should still practice safe sex, even in a monogamous relationship. Practicing safe sex with the correct use of condoms, limiting your number of sexual partners, and communicating openly with your doctor about any concerns are ways you can reduce your risk of contracting HPV.
Get Regular Health Screenings – Technically, there is no single test that a person can take to determine their HPV status. Women typically find out that they’ve been infected when they receive abnormal results after a Pap smear, a routine test used to detect signs of cervical cancer. For this reason, it’s important to keep annual appointments with your Ob/Gyn on the calendar.
Main Line Health prioritizes preventive care and protection for individuals of all ages. Our physicians are committed to providing compassionate and individualized care for each patient, and are equipped to guide patients through our wide variety of screening, treatment, and specialized care offerings.