What You Should Know About HPV: Warts, Cancer, Detection and Prevention
So, how common is HPV, really?
Very, and probably more than you think. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. An estimated 79 million people are infected, and four out of five females will have had the HPV virus by age 50. While the vast majority of people with an HPV infection won’t develop cancer because of it, it is still the leading cause of cervical cancer. An HPV infection is also a major cause of anal, vaginal, throat and penile cancers.
Penile cancers? Yes. While HPV is most commonly associated with cervical cancer, HPV infection can lead to cancer for both females and males.
Does HPV always lead to cancer?
Not necessarily! We sometimes talk about HPV as a single virus, but there are actually over 100 different strains, 40 of which can infect the genitals, anus, mouth and throat. Fourteen of these strains are “high-risk” strains that can cause cancer.
Once you’ve been diagnosed, do you need constant monitoring?
It’s possible for a healthy immune system to clear even high-risk strains naturally within six months to two years. The trouble comes when a high-risk virus doesn’t clear and causes normal cells to develop into abnormal – and potentially cancerous – cells. About 10 percent of females with high-risk strains will develop long-lasting HPV infections that put them at risk for cervical cancer.
What can I do to prevent getting HPV?
For starters, there is a readily available vaccine that offers some protection against several (but not all) of the high-risk and low-risk HPV strains. While it’s most effective when administered before the onset of sexual activity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends the vaccination for women through age 26, men through age 21 and certain populations over the age of 26.
Safe sex habits can also make a big difference. Whether or not you’ve tested positive for a sexually transmitted infection (STI), discussing STI testing and history prior to any sexual contact makes for a fully consensual and intimate experience.
Condoms and dental dams can really reduce your risk of HPV transmission. Unfortunately, HPV transmission can occur with any genital contact, including rubbing, oral sex and even simple contact of the skin around the genitals.
As always, if you’re sharing sex toys, disinfect them according to the manufacturer’s recommendations, and put a new condom on them between each partner’s use.
How will I know if I have an HPV infection?
For females regular wellness screenings can check for HPV, monitor which HPV strains you may have and make sure high-risk strains don’t develop into pre-cancer.
Regular Pap smears can be an important monitoring tool. Pap smears check for the presence of abnormal or precancerous cervical cells and cancerous cervical cells. You can actually test positive for high-risk HPV, but have a normal Pap smear showing normal cervical cells. If the Pap smear is abnormal – meaning abnormal cervical cells were detected – your healthcare provider may want to take a closer look with a colposcopy to biopsy the cells and possibly remove them to prevent cervical cancer.
Current recommendations call for Pap smears once every three years for females between the ages of 21 and 65 years, or every five years for females between the ages 30 and 65 who undergo additional HPV testing.
Unfortunately, there is no HPV test for males. Low-risk HPV can only be diagnosed in men through visible warts.
OK, but what if I already have HPV?
Luckily, there’s a lot you can do. Regular exercise, a diet full of fruits and veggies and reduced exposure to toxic chemicals can all boost your immune system’s ability to clear an HPV infection.
For females, a vaginal microbiome with an abundance of Lactobacillus bacteria can protect against acquiring HPV and help manage active infections. To help your vaginal microbiome, here are some things you can do every day:
- Take prebiotics and probiotics that contain Lactobacilli
- Avoid douching and vaginal soaps, which can eliminate Lactobacilli
- Eat plain, Lactobacillus-containing yogurt, fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, and drink fermented beverages like kombucha
- Avoid cigarette smoking, as smoking has been linked to decreased amounts of vaginal Lactobacillus
HPV can take decades to develop into cervical cancer, so early detection can go a long way toward management and prevention.
Have fun, eat (plain) yogurt and stay safe!
Your vagina is unique. Learn more about your vaginal health using uBiome’s doctor-ordered, at-home vaginal health screening test, SmartJane™. SmartJane genotypes 14 high-risk HPV strains, 5 low-risk HPV strains, and 4 common STIs (chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and Mycoplasma genitalium). SmartJane also detects and measures the levels of 23 other microorganisms that make up your vaginal flora.
Photo credit: @chinaealexander