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An overview of HPV risk and prevention

Last Modified: 3/25/2020

HPV

This post was written by Angela Blotkamp, FNP-BC, PPG – Family Medicine.

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. HPV is so common that most people will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives. Fortunately, most of these infections are cleared naturally by the body within two years. Unfortunately, these infections also have the potential to last longer, and can lead to health concerns such as genital warts and cancer. Anyone who is sexually active runs the risk of contracting HPV.

HPV and genital warts

HPV infection can cause genital warts, which appear as a small bump or cluster of bumps. They may be small or large, raised or flat. These warts may go away on their own or may require topical treatment. Genital warts may recur even after treatment. The strains of HPV that cause warts do not cause cancer.

HPV and cancer

Infection with high risk types of HPV can cause cancer. The six types of cancer HPV may cause include cancer of the cervix, vagina and vulva in women, penis in men, and anus and oropharynx in both men and women.

Prevention

One of the most important techniques to prevent HPV is to receive the HPV vaccine. It is safe and effective against the most common HPV viruses that cause both genital warts and HPV related cancers.

We now know that it is important to vaccinate both boys and girls against this disease, as both can be infected and harmed by HPV. Vaccination for both boys and girls is recommended prior to initiating any sexual activity. Currently, the vaccine is recommended at age 11-12 years. If started prior to age 15, children will only need 2 doses of the vaccine. If started after age 15, children will need a total of 3 doses. The vaccine currently is approved up to the age of 26 for all adults. Some adults, aged 27-45 may also receive this vaccine on a case-by-case basis. The vaccine may be less beneficial in this age group, as most have previously been sexually active and already exposed to HPV.

Currently, the only screening test for HPV is cervical cancer screening for women aged 21-65. It is highly encouraged for women in this age range to receive this screening test. There are currently no screening tests for the other HPV-related cancers or for men.

Bottom line

HPV is a very common virus that can lead to genital warts or cancer. Fortunately, it is also preventable. We encourage all children ages 11-12 to be vaccinated with the HPV vaccine. We also encourage women to undergo cervical cancer screening as directed by their provider. Lastly, we encourage healthy lifestyle choices to help reduce the transmission of HPV, including abstinence or limiting the number of sexual partners, consistent condom use or mutual monogamy.

 

Additional resource

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

 

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