By Dr. Lindsey Vasquez, Associate Medical Director—OB/GYN
The Human papillomavirus virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly everyone will get HPV at some point in their lives. Most HPV infections go away by themselves within two years. However, some infections can linger, eventually leading to cancer. HPV is spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact. You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. While there is no sure way to prevent all cases of HPV, there are ways to lower the chances for infection.
Get vaccinated. The HPV vaccination can prevent over 90% of cancers caused by HPV. Vaccines can prevent infection from certain types of the virus, including those linked to HPV-related cancers and anal/genital warts. HPV vaccines stimulate the body to produce antibodies that, in future encounters with HPV, bind to the virus and prevent it from infecting cells. Vaccines are approved and recommended for use in both males and females, between the ages of 9 and 12. HPV vaccinations are recommended for everyone up to 26 years-of-age, if not already vaccinated.
Get regular screenings. Cervical cancer is the most common HPV related cancer in persons with a cervix. Nine out of every 10 cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. It can be prevented, or even found early, with regular screening tests. The two most common tests for cervical cancer are the Pap smear and HPV test. The HPV tests on the market are only approved to find the infection in individuals with a cervix. They can be used alone or as part of a co-test (when an HPV test and a Pap test are done at the same time) to determine the risk of developing cervical cancer.
Use barrier methods whenever you have sex. This includes consistent and correct use of condoms, dental dams or anything that protects from direct genital contact. This can lower your chances of getting HPV but cannot fully protect you from contracting HPV.
Avoid sex if genital warts are present. If there is an active infection, it is still possible for the virus to spread even if wearing a condom.
Remain in a mutually monogamous relationship. Only have sex with someone who only has sex with you. Most persons with penises who get HPV never develop symptoms and the infection usually goes away but can be spread to other partners.
Reduce or avoid smoking. Smoking increases the risk of disease advancement and of a wart outbreak.
Tell sexual partners about HPV status before sexual activity. Ask your partners to let you know if they have any STIs. Ideally, get tested before having sex.
If you are interested in learning more about HPV screenings and vaccinations or are infected with the virus, talk to your Legacy provider about the best medical treatment for you. Call 832-548-5000 or visit www.legacycommunityhealth.org to schedule an appointment.