What is HPV?
HPV stands for Human Papilloma Virus and is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). Let’s put the prevalence of HPV into perspective with some quick facts and stats:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported approximately 43 million cases of HPV in 2018.
- About 14 million people become infected with HPV each year.
- Approximately 85% of people will get an HPV infection in their lifetime.
- There are over 100 types of HPV, but only around 14 of them are considered high-risk.
HPV is extremely common, and while the majority of sexually active individuals will get HPV at some point in their life, most won’t even know that they ever had it. This turns HPV into a double-edged sword. It usually has no symptoms and goes away on its own, which is great, but it’s easy to spread something that you don’t know you have.
How is it spread?
HPV is transmitted from partner to partner through sexual contact, including vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Be aware that HPV does not require intercourse for transmission — it spreads through skin-to-skin contact, so any intimate contact involving the genital region can result in the spread of HPV.
Because most people don’t know that they are infected, it becomes a silent spreader. It sounds scary, but don’t let it keep you up at night. Nearly all sexually active people will get HPV in their lifetime, and your body can usually get rid of it on its own.
Symptoms of HPV
Most of the time, your body will clear the HPV infection, and you’ll never experience any symptoms. Go ahead, give your immune system a pat on back. When it doesn’t go away, the most common symptom is genital warts, which may develop weeks, months, or even years after sexual contact with an infected individual. Genital warts warrant a check-up with your doctor, but take a deep breath — the types of HPV that cause genital warts are considered low-risk.
Certain types of HPV are considered high risk because they can cause changes to healthy cells over time. Out of over 100 types of HPV, only about 14 are considered high risk. Not all high-risk strains will develop into world-class opponents for your immune system. Still, some may learn to pack a punch over the years, so it’s important to keep yourself in fighting shape. Give your immune system extra support in the ring by eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. If you notice any new growths or changes in the genital, anal, or throat areas, visit your doctor.
HPV and Women
HPV most commonly affects the cervix in women, but advances in screening practices have made changes in cervical cells easier to detect. It can take 10-15 years for HPV-related cervical changes to cause health problems in women with healthy immune systems. This means that catching cervical changes early makes all the difference, and routine screenings are essential. Most guidelines recommend that screening starts at age 21. Depending on your age, you may get a Pap test, an HPV test, or both. These tests help identify abnormal cells or high-risk strains of HPV that could cause issues in the future. Your physician will tell you which tests you need and how often you should follow up.
In between visits with your physician, continue to support your cervical health and boost your immune system with a balanced, antioxidant-rich diet and active lifestyle. Interested in more ways to promote a healthy cervix? Check out “Lifestyle Choices for a Healthy Cervix.”
In a smaller number of women, persistent HPV infection can also lead to abnormal changes in the vagina, anus, or throat. Still, no FDA-approved tests exist to screen for HPV in these tissues.
HPV and Men
Lingering HPV infections can lead to anal, penile, or oral cell changes in men. Unfortunately, there are no approved HPV tests for men, and routine screening to check for HPV-related disease before there are signs and symptoms is not recommended by the CDC. Be sure to notify your doctor of any unusual growths in your genital, anal, or throat areas — early intervention is still key.
There’s not currently a cure for HPV, so prevention is our best weapon. Even though HPV is the most common STI and seems inevitable, there are still some ways you can help prevent it.
- Practice safe sex. Use a condom or barrier protection during penetrative or oral sex. This will help reduce your risk of getting HPV, but remember, HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact and can infect areas not protected by a condom.
- Schedule routine cervical screenings. Talk with your health care team to determine what kind of tests you need and how often you should get them. Remember, cervical cell changes usually take 10-15 years to cause health problems — that’s a pretty long time. Avoid those problems and add years to your life by detecting cervical changes early.
- Give your immune system a fighting chance. Your immune system puts up its fists to fight every single day, blocking punches you didn’t even see coming. Treat it like the champion it is — eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, choose lean proteins, and participate in regular physical activity. And for goodness sake, get to bed at a reasonable time! (Your immune system actually asked me to sneak in that tip). Sleep can help boost your immunity by strengthening T cells that help fight infections — just think of sleep as a weight-lifting session for your immune system. Got to get those gains.
- Get vaccinated. This may be the most important factor for improving the outlook of HPV. The CDC has several great reasons to get vaccinated. Check them out here.
The HPV vaccine works best if you get it before you become exposed to the virus. HPV vaccination is recommended for all kids at age 11 or 12 but can be started as early as nine years old. HPV vaccines are administered as a two-shot series if started before age 15, or a three-shot series if started after age 15. Although the vaccine is approved for adults up to age 45, it’s best to discuss with your health care provider if you’re over 26 years old to determine if the vaccine is suitable for you.
Unless you live in isolation, you or someone you know will get HPV. It’s a common virus, and you probably won’t even know you had it. Just practice safe sex, schedule regular check-ups and screenings, support your immune system, and get vaccinated if recommended by your health care provider. Then, carry on with your life!