your guide to HPV risks

Your Guide to HPV Risks

The human papillomavirus, or HPV, has gotten a lot of press lately because of a startling increase in cases of oral HPV infections and as a hot-button debate issue for presidential hopefuls. While the recent press makes it seem very new, HPV has been a hot topic in health for many years. Our best recommendation – GET INFORMED! The following will give you a good understanding of HPV and why it should stay on your radar – especially if you have young daughters.

What is HPV?

There are more than 150 known strains of the human papillomavirus. Of those, there are more than 40 genital HPVs that can cause genital warts and/or cervical cancer.

Genital HPV is spread through sexual intercourse or through skin-to-skin contact, so you don't have to have intercourse to get it. Latex condoms offer some protection but don't guard completely against transmission through skin-to-skin contact.

According to the NIH-National Cancer Institute, “HPV infection is the primary risk factor for cervical cancer. However, while HPV infection is very common (about 6 million new genital HPV infections occur each year in the United States), only a very small percentage of women with HPV infections develop cervical cancer.”

“A Pap smear at your yearly gynecological visit is the best screening test for detecting cervical changes that can lead to cervical cancer, and done regularly, the best way to prevent it,” says Virtua obstetrician and gynecologist, Jeffrey Levine, MD.

Why are there vaccines to protect against it?

HPV vaccines work like other immunizations that guard against viral infections. Gardasil and Cervarix, are given in a series to girls (and boys) as young as age 9 as a way of preventing HPV long before most kids become sexually active. These vaccines guard against two high-risk strains of HPV that cause more than 70% of cervical cancer cases. The difference between the two is that Gardasil also offers protection against some HPVs that cause genital warts.

What does a diagnosis of HPV mean?

It may be surprising, but about half of HPV cases appear in married women. However, you only need to be exposed once to get it, and many of these women could’ve had it since high school or college and not known it.

If a woman tests positive for a high-risk strain of HPV and her Pap test shows dysplasia (abnormal cells), her gynecologist likely will perform a colposcopy. During this procedure, the doctor inspects the cervix with a special scope through the vagina. The doctor then takes a biopsy, or tissue sample, which is sent to a pathologist to check for cancer cells.

If the biopsy shows cervical cell dysplasia, there are many treatment options available to remove or destroy the abnormal cells. 

"When cervical cancer is found, prognosis and treatment options depend on many factors including the stage of the cancer, tumor size, the woman's age and her desire to have children," states Dr. Levine. Treatment usually involves hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus and cervix) and/or radiation combined with chemotherapy.

In 2010, it was estimated that 12,200 women in the United States would be diagnosed with cervical cancer and that an estimated 4,210 would die from the disease. This number is staggering to Dr. Levine, especially because cervical cancer is preventable when screenings are done regularly. He emphasizes: “Thousands of lives could be saved each year if more women were informed about prevention, screening and vaccination.” 

Updated June 6, 2016

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