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Take the mystery out of HPV

Published in Women's Services, Sexual Medicine, Infectious Diseases, For the Health of It Author: Jennifer Martinson,MD Author: Jennifer N. Martinson, MD

Every year, about 23,700 women and 17,300 men in America are affected by HPV-related cancers. I get a lot of questions about HPV after women test positive for it. I really want to get the message out about HPV vaccination to parents, who can help prevent their children from getting HPV-related cancers.

What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus. It’s a sexually transmitted infection. There are more than 150 types of HPV. About 40 types infect the genital area of men and women and are spread by skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal or oral sex.

How common is HPV infection?

HPV infection is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. Most sexually-active men or women will get an HPV infection at some point in their life.

What are the signs and symptoms of HPV infection?

Genital HPV infection often has no immediate signs or symptoms. Unfortunately, HPV cancer symptoms often become present only after the disease has become advanced. That’s why regular cervical cancer screenings are so important. There is no HPV screening for men.

What diseases are caused by HPV?

HPV can cause genital warts and cancer in both men and women.

  • Two strains of HPV cause about 90 percent of genital warts. Genital warts are not cancer and do not turn into cancer. Warts can be treated with medication or surgery.
  • At least 13 types of HPV are linked to cancer of the cervix, anus, vagina, penis, mouth and throat. Cervical cancer screening (Pap smear) can detect signs of abnormal cell changes of the cervix and allows early treatment so they do not become cancer. A woman can start getting Pap smears starting at age 21 as part of a regular doctor’s visit.

Does being infected with HPV mean a person will get genital warts or cancer?

In most people, the immune system fights HPV infections and clears them from the body. Smokers or people who have compromised immune systems have a more difficult time clearing the virus.

What is the best way to protect against HPV infection?

A vaccine is available that can prevent infection of up to nine HPV strains.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates mutually monogamous sexual relationships will lower a person’s risk of getting HPV.

Condoms always should be used to protect against sexually transmitted diseases although HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity.

Remember that the HPV vaccine does not protect against other sexually-transmitted diseases.

Who should get the HPV vaccine and when?

Girls and boys should get the HPV vaccine. Vaccination works best the younger a child is due to a better immune response, and when it is done before a person is sexually active and exposed to HPV. The ideal age for HPV vaccination is 9 or 10 years old but it can be given through age 26.

If the first dose of HPV is given prior to the age of 15, the child only needs two doses, six months apart.

If the first dose is given after a child’s 15th birthday, the child will need three doses. The second dose can be given two months after the first dose. The final dose can then be given four months later.

What if my child does not get all doses of the HPV vaccine on time?

He or she can get the next shot that is due even if the time between them is longer than recommended.

How effective is the HPV vaccine?

Studies show that getting all doses of the HPV vaccine before becoming sexually active can greatly reduce the risk of getting certain types of HPV-related cancer. If someone already is sexually active, he or she may already be infected with one or more types of HPV, but still can get the vaccine if he or she is younger than 26 years. The vaccine may help protect against the other additional types of HPV included in the vaccine that he or she not infected with.