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This is the easiest way to avoid getting a virus that may cause cancer.

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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted virus that may increase the risk of developing cancer, primarily cervical cancer. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection, affecting about 79 million Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There are many different strains of the virus and many people don’t even know they have been infected by HPV because it often causes no symptoms. Having no symptoms is good but it makes it harder to know if you are having sex with someone who may be infected with the virus and can pass it on to you. Some strains cause genital warts or even some types of cancer. Fortunately, you can reduce your risk of catching strains of the virus that may cause potentially serious health problems by taking a few precautions.

How HPV Can Affect Your Health

HPV infections often have no symptoms, go away on their own and don’t cause health problems. But some strains of human papillomavirus may cause more serious health issues, including:

  • Cervical Cancer: An HPV infection may increase a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer. Almost 14,000 women in the U.S. are expected to be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2020, according to the American Cancer Society®.
  • Other Cancers: HPV can also cause cancer of the throat, anus, penis, vagina or vulva. Cancer can occur in females and males.
  • Genital Warts: These bumpy or flat growths may appear on the penis, vulva, vagina or cervix, or in or around the anus.
  • Pregnancy Complications: Large warts may bleed or make it difficult for vaginal tissue to stretch during childbirth.

The Best Way to Lower Your HPV Risk

The most effective way to protect yourself from getting human papillomavirus is to be vaccinated against it. Gardasil 9, the HPV vaccine offered in the U.S., targets the virus strains most likely to cause cancer in both males and females. After receiving the vaccine, your body produces antibodies that will attack the virus if you’re ever exposed to HPV.

HPV vaccinations are typically given to people (male and female) between the ages of 11 to 26, although children as young as 9 can receive them. Two shots are needed before age 15, while three shots are required if you begin getting the shots at age 15 or older.

According to the National Cancer Institute, infections with two common strains of HPV decreased by 83% in girls aged 15 – 19 and 66% in women aged 20 – 24 after the introduction of the vaccine. Gardasil was also effective in preventing HPV infections and genital sores in men in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

You Also Need Routine Screenings

Women should be routinely screened for the presence of HPV and cervical cancer. Pap and HPV tests involve removing a sample of cells from the cervix with a small brush. Pap tests can identify abnormal or cancerous cells, while HPV tests detect the presence of the virus. If your HPV test is positive, your doctor may recommend that you have more frequent tests, as you may have an increased risk of cancer in the future.

The American Cancer Society® recently changed its cervical cancer screening recommendations as a result of a decline in HPV infections. The ACS now recommends that cervical cancer screening should begin at age 25 and should include:

  • A primary HPV test every 5 years
  • A test that combines Pap and HPV tests every 5 years
  • A Pap test alone every 3 years

These screenings should be done even if a person is vaccinated against HPV. The ACS suggests that screenings can be stopped after age 65 if regular screenings have been done during the previous 10 years with normal results.

Safe Sex Practices Also Help Lower HPV Risk

Reducing skin-to-skin sexual contact through the use of condoms also helps protect you from developing HPV and other sexually transmitted infections.

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Date Last Reviewed: November 12, 2020

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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