Almost 80 Million Americans Have This Virus—Here's How to Protect Yourself

Almost 80 Million Americans Have This Virus—Here's How to Protect Yourself

The HPV vaccine may prevent up to 32,000 cancer cases in the U.S. each year.

It’s thought that almost 80 million Americans are currently infected with human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus that can cause genital warts and cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva and penis, among others. In fact, almost all men and women are exposed to it as some point in their lives, says OBGYN Michael Liao, MD, of Summerville Medical Center in South Carolina.

Thankfully, though, the HPV vaccine can prevent most cancers from developing. In fact, experts predict that about 32,000 of the 34,800 cancer cases that occur in the United States as a result of HPV infection every year can be prevented with the vaccine.

Although most HPV infections never cause any symptoms or serious problems and will go away on their own within two years, it’s important to take precautions with regular screenings and vaccinations. They could save your life—or the life of a loved one.

What is HPV and how does it spread?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. It is actually a collection of more than 200 associated viruses, 40 of which are spread through direct sexual contact and 13 of which can cause cancer. Some types of HPV cause warts or skin growths and some may never cause any problems at all.

“Some of the strains are little nuisance types of viruses that don't do much and some of them are cosmetically distressing,” says Dr. Liao. “But more significantly, certain strains are what we call high-risk strains and they can contribute to cancer, in terms of how they damage DNA and make the cells grow abnormally.”

A total of 40 strains are spread only through intimate skin-to-skin interaction—in other words, vaginal, anal or oral sex. So, if you have sex with someone who has HPV, you can get it even if your partner doesn’t have any symptoms. Other strains, such as those that cause warts on areas like the hands and feet, can be transmitted by touching surfaces.

What is the HPV vaccine?
The immunizations that protect against HPV encourage the body to make antibodies, proteins used by the immune system to fight viruses. If these antibodies are ever exposed to HPV, they bind to the virus and prevent it from invading the body’s cells.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends three different vaccines for protection against infections associated with HPV: Gardasil, Gardasil 9 and Cervarix.

All of the vaccines protect to varying degrees against the HPV types associated with cervical cancer and other cancers, including anal, oropharyngeal, vulvar, vaginal and penile cancer. Only Gardasil 9 is now used in the U.S., however, as it provides the broadest coverage, while the other two are still used in other countries around the world.

In May 2017, Gardasil 9 became the sole HPV vaccine recommended in the U.S., while the other two are still used in other countries around the world.

Who should get vaccinated—and when?
All boys and girls should receive the two-dose HPV vaccine between the ages of 9 and 12, with the first dose coming at age 9 or 10. If your teen hasn’t gotten the vaccine yet, talk to their healthcare provider about getting it as soon as possible. After age 14, three shots are needed instead of two.

Women and men who have not previously been vaccinated can also receive the vaccine up to age 26, but it’s worth noting that being vaccinated at older ages is less effective for lowering cancer risk.

“It’s important for young people to remember that even if they missed their early dose of the vaccine, they should still consider getting vaccinated because there's lots of different strains out there,” says Liao. “While the vaccine won't necessarily go back and reverse the course of the prior exposure, it can help prevent future exposures from other strains that they haven't been exposed to yet.”

In special circumstances, a healthcare provider may recommend receiving the vaccine up until age 45.

Regular screenings are important, too
Not all cancers associated with HPV have screening options available—specifically anal, penile and oropharyngeal (back of the throat).

But there is one very important screening method for women: In addition to getting the HPV vaccine, it’s imperative that women get regular cervical cancer screenings in the form of Pap smears, as well as a specific HPV test. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ guidelines are as follows:

  • Women ages 21 to 29: Pap smear every three years
  • Women 30 to 65: Pap smear and specific HPV test every 5 years (continuing to have a Pap smear alone every three years is an option, too)

Sometimes, your OBGYN may suggest an HPV test as a follow up if your Pap smear comes back abnormal, says Liao. When it comes to screenings and testing, however, it’s important for women to talk with their doctors. How often you need a Pap smear depends on your age and health history.

It’s also important to remember that both men and women should also have routine check-ups with their primary care physicians.

If you get the HPV vaccine, it’s likely you’ll be protected against most cancers and other diseases HPV can cause. But if you notice genital warts, see your doctor.

Women who have irregular vaginal bleeding such as bleeding after menopause or after sex, abnormal discharge between periods or pain while having sex should see their OBGYN. Although these symptoms can be signs of many other conditions, they could be signs of cervical cancer or precancers.

The best thing you can do to protect yourself against HPV and the conditions related to it is to be proactive. The HPV vaccine is extremely effective when taken well before someone becomes sexually active, so it’s best to get vaccinated as a preteen or young adult. And continuing regular screenings is important, too.

“If you’re going to your primary care physician and OBGYN regularly, your doctor should be able to detect any problems before they become too significant,” says Liao.

Medically reviewed in July 2020.

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