What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection affecting both males and females and is the cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer.
There are nearly 80 million people currently infected with HPV in the United States, according to the CDC, and nearly 14 million people, including teenagers, become infected with HPV each year.
Unlike other sexually transmitted infections, most signs and symptoms of HPV are nonexistent. Of the more than 40 types of HPV, some types may cause genital warts and a small number may lead to cervical, vulvae, vaginal and anal cancers in women or anal and penile cancers in men. Various types may also transmit infection to the mouth and throat and have been associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Screening and prevention
Screening for HPV is usually carried out by a Pap smear or by liquid-based cytology to detect abnormal cells. When abnormal cells are detected, a colposcopic inspection is recommended. During this procedure, biopsies are performed and abnormal cells removed via cauterizing loop or, more commonly, by cryotherapy.
According to the CDC, “Condom use may reduce the risk for genital HPV infection.” However, when compared with other sexually transmitted infections, condom use provides a lesser degree of protection because HPV can also be transmitted via exposure to infected skin or mucosal surfaces not protected by condom use.
Although there is no current treatment for HPV, the two HPV vaccines (Cervarix, GlaxoSmithKline, and Gardasil, Merck) provide protection from infection with HPV types 16 and 18 — the cause of 70% of cervical cancers. The vaccine is given in three injections throughout the course of 6 months.
According to CDC, all boys and girls should get vaccinated at the age of 11 or 12 years. Vaccines are recommended for males through age 21 years, and for females through age 26 years for those not vaccinated when younger. The HPV vaccine is also recommended for men who have sex with men, as well as men and women with compromised immune systems, including people living with HIV/AIDS, through age 26 years.
HPV in women
In most girls, HPV infection is temporary and does not have a significant long-term effect. Within 1 year, 70% of HPV infections are cured; 90% are cured within 2 years. Yet, in 5% to 10% of women, HPV infection persists. These patients are at a significant risk for precancerous lesions of the cervix, which may lead to invasive cervical cancer within 10 to 15 years. On rare occasions, mothers with genital HPV can pass on the virus to their baby during delivery, and the baby may develop recurrent respiratory papillomatosis. This is a condition in which warts grow on the throat and is referred to as juvenile-onset recurrent respiratory papillomatosis in older children.
HPV in men
HPV in men is usually asymptomatic and the infection goes away on its own. However, sometimes the infection does not resolve on its own and can cause genital warts or certain cancers. Cancers associated with HPV in men are uncommon, but include penile and anal cancer. Men with HPV who are more likely to go on to develop cancer are those with weakened immune systems and men who have sex with men.
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