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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), human papillomavirus (HPV) infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States, affecting about 80 million people. Even though the infections are not uncommon, there are still a lot of misconceptions about HPV, including what it is, what types of problems it can cause, and how infections can be prevented.
At his obstetrics and gynecology practice in Newburgh, Indiana, Paul W. Morrison, M.D., helps his patients understand the potential health effects of HPV infections and how infections can be prevented or managed.
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, isn’t a single virus. The term covers more than 100 viruses that are transmitted sexually. Only a handful of these viruses cause health problems. Many of the viruses can cause infections that have no symptoms and resolve within a few months to a few years.
No. HPV and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) are completely different and unrelated infections. HPV is also unrelated to HSV (herpes simplex virus).
HPV spreads through sexual contact. Most HPV infections are spread through vaginal sex, but you can also develop an HPV infection through oral sex and anal sex. Because HPV infections can cause few or no symptoms early on, a person may spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected.
HPV can infect anyone who is sexually active. If you have sex with a person who’s infected with HPV, you may develop symptoms soon after contact, or it may take years before you develop any signs of the infection. This type of delayed reaction is another reason why a person can spread the infection without realizing they’ve been infected.
While most infections clear up without causing problems, several HPV strains can cause long-term health effects, including genital warts and cancers of the cervix, vulva, throat, and penis. In fact, HPV causes about 70% of all throat (oropharyngeal) cancers and nearly all cervical cancers in the United States. Data indicate HPV infections may also be the leading cause of anal cancers.
There are several important things you can do to reduce your risk of getting an HPV infection:
The CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for children ages 11-12, and sometimes as early as age 9. It’s also recommended for anyone up to age 26 who did not receive the vaccine when they were younger. If you’re between the ages of 27-45 and have not been vaccinated, you can discuss the possible benefits of being vaccinated during your office visit with Dr. Morrison.
Since HPV is transmitted through sex, abstaining from sex is the only way to prevent an infection. If you’re sexually active, stick to one partner, and make sure your partner is also committed to monogamy. Furthermore, you also need to make sure you know your partner’s sexual history so you can have a better understanding of your potential risk of infection.
Condoms can help prevent many types of STDs, but they’re not foolproof. However, using a condom may decrease your risk of getting infected.
Since most HPV infections cause no symptoms, there’s no way to tell on your own if you’ve been infected. However, there is a test that can screen for HPV. Dr. Morrison offers HPV screening as part of a regular pelvic exam.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends HPV testing every five years for women ages 30-65. HPV testing should be performed along with your regular Pap test, not as a substitute. For women ages 21-30, the USPSTF recommends Pap tests every three years. Depending on your risk profile, Dr. Morrison may recommend HPV testing as well.
As a board-certified OB/GYN, Dr. Morrison is dedicated to helping women lead healthier lives. If you’re concerned about HPV or other STDs, or if you’d like to learn more about the HPV vaccine or screening, book an appointment online or over the phone with the practice of Paul W. Morrison, M.D. today.
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