There has been a lot of media attention and heated debate lately surrounding HPV (human papillomavirus) and the new vaccine. This previously obscure infection is one of the most common causes of sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the world, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a part of the National Institutes of Health. Although many types of HPV are harmless, some can lead to cervical cancer, which kills nearly 4,000 women each year. So what is HPV and how can you protect yourself?
There are more than 100 strains of HPV, but only about 30 of these are sexually transmitted and cause genital HPV. Some, approximately 10, are considered "high risk" and may cause you to have abnormal Pap test results and may lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus or penis. Other strains are considered "low risk" and may cause you to have a mildly abnormal or "unclear" Pap test or genital warts.
Genital warts are usually soft, moist, pink or flesh-colored, and may be raised or flat, small or large, single or multiple. They usually appear on the vulva, or in or around the vagina or cervix in women; on men they can appear on or around the penis and/or scrotum; and around the anus, groin or thigh on both men and women.
Genital warts may go away on their own, or they can be treated with medicine or by freezing (cryosurgery), burning (electrocautery) or laser treatment. However, there is no cure for HPV and because the virus remains in your system, the warts can return after treatment.
While warts may appear, most people are asymptomatic, meaning they have no symptoms of the infection and may not even know they have it and, therefore, can spread it to their partner and/or develop complications.
Because an HPV infection may go unnoticed, it is recommended that women over the age of 30 be tested every year during their regular Pap test (a routine Pap test does not test for the HPV virus). Women over 30 who have had three or more normal Pap tests in a row, or one normal Pap test and a negative HPV test may only need to be tested every three years.
Women under the age of 30 do not need to be routinely tested for HPV unless they have an abnormal or unclear Pap test because HPV is so very common, cervical cancer at this age is rare, and most HPV infections go away by themselves with no adverse health effects.
A vaccine, sold under the brand name Gardasil, was recently approved that prevents two of the types of HPV that cause 70 percent of all cases of cervical cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug for girls and women ages nine to 26 because studies have only been conducted on women in that age group. However, more research is underway to determine if women between the ages of 27 and 55 show a positive response to the vaccine.
HPV is so prevalent that approximately 3 out of 4 people have it at some point in their lives. Although there is no treatment or cure for HPV, most infections (90 percent) clear themselves and become undetectable within two years.
The best ways to protect yourself against HPV is to practice abstinence, engage in monogamous sex, engage in sex play that does not include vaginal or anal intercourse, use condoms every time you have sex, or get the HPV vaccine. Unfortunately, HPV may be present in skin that is beyond the area covered or protected by a condom, so using condoms will only reduce your risk of infection. The best way to protect yourself against cervical cancer is to have regular Pap and HPV tests.