It’s a common misconception that the Human Papillomavirus Virus is something only women have to deal with. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States.
While HPV often can lay dormant for years with little noticeable effect on a person’s health, it can also lead to penile, cervical, vulval, vaginal, throat, and anal cancer.
Perhaps most unsettling is just how common HPV is in America. It’s mostly spread during sexual activity, and can be transmitted even if someone is wearing a condom, as condoms don’t cover every part of the sexual organs. It can also be spread through genital contact even if there’s no penetration, although that’s less common, according to the American Cancer Society.
Also, a 2017 NBC News report said a team at the University of Florida, Baylor College of Medicine and elsewhere found that 11.5 percent of U.S. men were actively infected with oral HPV between 2011 and 2014, and 3 percent of women were. That adds up to 11 million men and 3 million women, the researchers report in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Most sexually active women and men will become infected with HPV for the first time between ages 15 and 25, said Jigna Patel, an MD for the Palisades Women’s Group. She was speaking at an educational HPV seminar at the North Bergen Main Library May 2.
The event was part of the library’s ongoing Well-Being Wednesday series. A handful of people attended the event, sponsored by Hackensack Meridian Health and the library.
A whopping 75 to 80 percent of sexually active adults will acquire the virus before turning 50, Patel said.
There is no HPV cure, but most HPV strains go away in time. However, a compromised immune system can inhibit the body’s ability to fight off certain HPV strains that can later cause certain cancers.
HPV risk factors include being African-American or Hispanic (attributed to lower access to medical care, though some experts also suspect a biological basis as well), said Patel. Smoking and frequent alcohol consumption can increase the likelihood of infection, as well as having two to three sexual partners in a year.
What are the symptoms?
Though most people with HPV do not develop symptoms, some do. Anogenital warts in both men and women can indicate the virus’s presence, according to Patel. These warts are typically found on the vulva, penis, groin, perineum, and suprapubic skin. Roughly a third of these warts regress without treatment within four months.
Treatment for the warts includes directly destroying the tissue, known as a cryo-destructive method, working through the patient’s immune system to remove the warts, and, should more conservative options fail, surgical therapy, which could include ablation and excision.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection.
Children get HPV vaccine
In the last two decades, more and more children have gotten vaccinated against HPV.
According to Patel, girls and women between ages nine and 26, and boys and men between ages nine and 21, should get the HPV vaccine. Kids under 15 years old should get the vaccine in two injections at least six months apart.
Though many kids get the vaccine these days starting with their pediatrician, some parents have resisted giving their children the vaccine, arguing that it isn’t needed because HPV is sexually transmitted. Others are suspicious of whether the vaccine is proven effective.
The Centers for Disease Control also recommends the vaccine for certain people if they did not receive the vaccine when younger, up to age 26. Those include young gay or bisexual men who intend to have sex with men, young adults who are transgender, and young adults with certain immunocompromising conditions (including HIV).
Adult women tend to undergo pap smear exams that check for abnormal cervix cells, as a sign of cervical cancer or other disorders. They can undergo an HPV test simultaneously. Today, it is recommended that women ages 21 through 29 at least undergo a pap smear once every three years, according to Patel. For women ages 30 through 65, it is recommended they undergo both HPV and pap smear testing at least every five years, or the regular three-year pap smear exam schedule.
There are no mirroring exams for men with HPV, due to lack of data on the subject. Doctors can find HPV in males with a biopsy on any anogenital warts, which can see what kids of squamous cells are present, and if they are HPV related, Patel said.
No need for alarm
For those infected with the virus, there are several things that can help the immune system clear it. These include avoiding smoking and oral contraceptives, as birth control pills can increase the chances of HPV turning into cancer. They can use other birth control options.
Taking vitamins, especially Folic acid and B12, can also help strengthen the immune system to fight off the virus, many experts say.
One of the best ways to try avoiding HPV is practicing safer sex, Patel said. That means using a condom with every sex act. This can protect infected genital areas from skin-to-skin contact that spreads the disease, but is not foolproof. Experts also recommend being in a mutually monogamous sexual relationship.
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