It’s been the ignored and unspoken of virus for many years in terms of health classes and “the birds & the bees” talk. The “almost everyone gets it but no one knows about it” virus. But not knowing about it, can literally cost you your life. There’s been a lot of shame associated with a diagnosis of HPV, which is preventing people from learning the necessary information about their bodies in order to prevent future complications. So, right now is absolutely the time to change that! There is no shame in learning about HPV, and we’re going to talk about it – right now.
WHAT IS HPV?
HPV – short for Human Papilloma Virus – is a virus that is very, very common. It has been estimated that 75% or more of sexually active Americans will contract HPV at some point in their lifetime – and according to the CDC, 14 million Americans are affected by HPV – every year. With over 100 different strands of the virus, it’s important to understand that some strands can cause serious health issues – like cervical cancer – and others that don’t pose serious health risks. Of the 100 strands, at least 13 of them are linked to types of cancers.
In order to truly understand HPV, we must first know how the virus is spread and contracted. Let’s get started…
HOW DO YOU GET HPV?
HPV is passed along by having vaginal, anal, oral sex, OR skin-to-skin contact with someone who already has the virus. In most cases, the partner with HPV shows no signs or symptoms of the virus when it’s being passed along. ANYONE who is sexually active can get HPV – even if you’ve had sex with only one person. HPV can also be spread even if you wear a condom and is often symptomless. If you do develop symptoms (genital warts, abnormal Papsmear results, etc.), it can sometimes by years after you have had sex with someone who is infected. This makes it nearly impossible to pin point when you first became infected with the virus.
HPV typically infects the genital area and may cause certain warts, or mild changes to your cervical cells. Most HPV infections go away on their own. However, infections that don’t go away can cause changes to our cells and can lead to certain cancers. For women in particular, cervical cancer is the biggest threat. Nearly 30,000 men and women in the United States are diagnosed with a type of cancer that is linked to HPV. If your doctor determined that you have the virus, it is important to continue your yearly annual exams (or more frequently if recommended by your doctor) and monitor for any cell changes in your body.
HOW TO PREVENT CANCEROUS HPV STRANDS
In the last few years, medical professionals have developed a vaccine to prevent specific strands of HPV from entering the human body. The 9-valent HPV vaccine can be given to kids as early as 9 years old – and up until the age of 26 for women, and 21 for young men.
It’s important to note that because HPV has so many strands, the vaccine is specific to ONLY the cancerous strands of HPV. The 9-valent vaccine protects against 9 specific strands of HPV that lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and throat. You can still contract other strands of HPV if you’ve had the HPV vaccine.
CAN YOU TEST FOR HPV?
The short answer is, yes, but it’s rarely done unless asked for. Even if you haven’t been tested, there are preventative measures for making sure your HPV does not cause cancer.
As a health care professional the question I am often asked is how to test if someone has HPV. My response for women is always the same. GET A PAP, GET A PAP, GET A PAP! I can’t say it enough. An HPV test is usually conducted if a Papsmear finds changes in the cervical cells. More testing is done in order to insure that the cells are not pre-cancerous. A small sample of the cells from the cervix are taken during a routine pelvic exam. They are then sent out to a lab and evaluated for any changes or abnormalities. If anything “off” is found in the Pap test, your doctor may call you in for another exam – most likely a biopsy of your cervix to confirm that you are cancer free.
It is very important to continue to have routine preventive health exams.
If your follow up Papsmear and biopsy are normal, then there is very little risk of worrisome changes to cervical cells over the next 5 years. Always discuss with your physician in regards to when is best to follow up and how often you should be doing it. If your biopsy comes back with more abnormalities, your doctor may suggest a simple procedure to remove the abnormal cells.
If you’ve tested positive for HPV, keep in mind that most infections go away without treatment because our immune system finds the virus and either gets rid of it or keeps it suppressed to the point that it is highly unlikely to cause any other serious health problems. Again, the HPV vaccine can also help prevent serious health risks or complications from HPV. Even though HPV is linked to cervical cancer, most people who test positive for HPV are not at risk for getting cervical cancer. If your Papsmear showed signs of HPV, you will usually be tested again within the year. Testing “positive” again does not necessarily mean you will be diagnosed with cervical cancer, but more so that further evaluation is suggested and necessary to ensure that cancer doesn’t develop.
I will say, if you have contracted HPV, a word of advice that I hope you will take seriously is to stay away from smoking. Smoking has been shown to increase the chance of cell abnormalities, which can cause severe changes in the body. Plus, it’s bad for you anyway!
WHAT ABOUT MY PARTNER?
Most sexually active couples share an HPV strand. This means if you or your partner has HPV – the virus will most likely be given to the other partner. This may be worrying but remember: your body usually suppresses the infection on its own. Partners who are sexually active or intimate ONLY with each other (remember again: HPV can also spread from skin-to-skin contact, not just sexual intercourse) are not likely to pass the same virus back and forth. Our immune system is so great that once an HPV infection is contracted, it will remember that HPV strand and prevent a new infection of the same HPV strand from occurring again! It’s helpful to keep your immune systems strong on a daily basis. Taking L-lysine, Vitamin C, Echinacea and a multivitamin (just to name a few) can help with that.
January is Cervical Cancer awareness month. You already know that here at MM we love our gynos! It is strongly suggested by medical professionals that every woman pay a visit to her local OB-GYN at least once a year. This way – we can properly monitor things like HPV to insure that we don’t develop health complications in the future.