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HPV facts for girls, women and the people who love them

By The Health News Team | February 2, 2022
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The ability to prevent cancer from an early age seems like an opportunity every parent would jump at for their children. Unfortunately, the American Cancer Society reports that only 53% of teen girls have been fully vaccinated for the human papillomavirus(HPV).

HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that can cause a variety of cancers in women, including:

  • Cervical cancer

  • Vaginal cancer

  • Vulvar cancer

  • Anal cancer

  • Cancer of the back of the throat

HPV can also cause genital warts in both women and men. And an HPV infection can lead to penile, anal and throat cancer in men.

HPV is transmitted through vaginal, anal or oral sex, and can also be spread through close skin-to-skin contact. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person with HPV can pass the infection to someone even when they are showing no symptoms.

“In females, most cases of HPV are from vaginal or anal intercourse, but it is possible to get HPV without intercourse,” says Dr. Corinne Yarbrough, an internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “One study showed HPV in 4% of females who were not yet having intercourse — likely due to nonpenetrating sexual activity — versus 22% in sexually active women.”

A vaccine for HPV
Fortunately, an HPV vaccine is available, safe and effective. It is recommended for children of all genders who are at least 9 years old and provides them with protection long before they might be exposed to the virus through sexual contact.

A National Cancer Institute review of clinical trials found that HPV vaccines are highly effective — close to 100% effective in most cases — in preventing cervical infection when given before being exposed to HPV. The CDC recommends HPV vaccination for everyone up to age 26, if they were not adequately vaccinated already.

“For women older than 26, the decision to vaccinate against HPV is made on a case-by-case basis,” Dr. Yarbrough says. “This means it is a good idea for some, but not indicated for everyone, in that age group.”

Signs of HPV
The types of HPV that cause genital warts — painless, pink- or skin-colored growths — can be treated by a doctor or with prescription medication. If left untreated, the CDC reports the warts may go away or stay the same, but they could instead continue to grow in size or number.

However, cancer-causing HPV does not cause symptoms. It is detected on a Pap test, a procedure to test for precancers or cervical cancer in women. The CDC recommends women begin Pap tests at age 21.

Screening for HPV
During a Pap test, your doctor collects cells and mucus from the cervix and the area around it and sends them to a laboratory to be analyzed. If your result is normal, your doctor may wait three years until performing your next Pap test. If the test indicates the presence of the cancer-causing, high-risk type of HPV, you will be monitored more frequently.

In most cases, HPV can go away on its own. However, if the Pap test is abnormal in the presence of high-risk HPV, treatment may be necessary.

“Screening varies depending on age,” Dr. Yarbrough says. “I recommend that women follow their doctor’s advice.”

In general, Dr. Yarbrough says that women age 30 and over get HPV testing with a Pap test every 5 years, or more frequently if the Pap test is abnormal. However, because the vaccine is so effective, she recommends vaccination as the first line of defense against HPV.

“I strongly recommend the HPV vaccine,” Dr. Yarbrough says. “And it is best given prior to the onset of sexual activity for greatest protection.”

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