March 4th is HPV Awareness Day! HPV—which is an abbreviation for Human Papillomavirus—is the most common Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 5 people in the United States had an STI on any given day in 2018. In 2018 alone, there were an estimated 43 million HPV infections, with 13 million new infections in that same year (source: CDC). HPV is so common, in fact, that the CDC estimates that nearly every sexually active person will get HPV at some point in their lives if they don’t get the HPV vaccine.
Although this illness is common, many people don’t know how to prevent HPV.
One reason for this is that HPV can be highly difficult to self-diagnose, as most people with HPV have no symptoms. However, the STI can cause serious health issues. In fact, HPV can cause cervical cancer and other cancers, including vulva, vagina, penis, throat or anus cancer, as well as genital warts. There is no way to predict who might develop serious health problems with HPV although, generally, immunocompromised people are more likely to develop health complications.
How to Prevent Getting HPV
The HPV vaccine is a great way to prevent HPV and HPV related health problems. It is safe, effective and protects against cancers caused by HPV.
There are three HPV vaccines that have been licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): 9-valent HPV vaccine (Gardasil 9, 9vHPV), quadrivalent HPV vaccine (Gardasil, 4vHPV) and bivalent HPV vaccine (Cervarix, 2vHPV). All three of these vaccines provide protection against HPV types 16 and 18, which cause most HPV cancers, according to the CDC.
Since late 2016, only the Gardasil-9 (9vHPV) vaccine is distributed in the U.S. Gardasil-9 protects against nine different HPV types, including HPV types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58.
Using condoms the proper way every time you have sex is another important measure to prevent the spread of HPV. For more information about proper condom usage, click here.
Who Should Get the HPV Vaccine?
Both adolescent girls and adolescent boys can get the HPV vaccine. Men and women can get the HPV vaccine as well. However, HPV vaccination is not recommended for everyone over the age of 26. This doesn’t mean that if you are older than 26, you can’t get the HPV vaccine. If you are ages 27-45 and would like to get the HPV vaccine because you are previously unvaccinated, it’s important to talk to your doctor about the possible benefits of HPV vaccination and your current risk for HPV exposure. The reason it’s recommended to get the HPV vaccine by or before the age of 26 is that after this age, the vaccine provides less benefit because more people in the 27 years and up age range have already been exposed to HPV.
The CDC recommends HPV vaccination at ages 11-12 years, though children as young as 9 years-old can get the vaccine.
For 11- to 12-year-olds who get the HPV vaccine, the CDC recommends getting two doses of the vaccine 6-12 months apart.
According to the CDC, teens and young adults who get the HPV vaccine from ages 15-26 need three doses of the vaccine. In addition, children ages 9 through 14 who received two doses of the HPV vaccine less than five months apart will need a third dose.
Who Should Not Get the HPV Vaccine?
As with any vaccine, it’s important to inform your doctor if you have any severe allergies to any of the ingredients in the HPV vaccine.
According to the CDC, the following people should not get the HPV vaccine if:
• They have ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction to any ingredient of an HPV vaccine, or to a previous dose of HPV vaccine.
• They have an allergy to yeast (Gardasil and Gardasil 9).
• They are pregnant.
As stated by the CDC, “HPV vaccines are safe for children who are mildly ill, like those with a low-grade fever of less than 101 degrees, a cold, runny nose, or cough. People with a moderate or severe illness should wait until they are better (to get the vaccine).”
What Are the Most Common Side Effects of the HPV Vaccine?
The HPV vaccine is very safe, with few reported side effects. The most common side effect of the HPV vaccine is temporary pain/redness where you got the shot.
HPV Vaccine Myths & Controversy
As stated on Planned Parenthood’s website:
“One of the reasons the HPV vaccine is controversial is because it prevents a sexually transmitted infection, which leads some people to believe it’s inappropriate for children. But the thing is, the vaccine works best if you get it long before you have sex. So, it’s a good idea to get it when you’re young so you won’t have to worry about getting certain kinds of cancer later in life.
Studies show that the HPV vaccine doesn’t lead to people having more sex or sex at a younger age. So, giving kids the HPV vaccine doesn’t encourage them to have sex. All it does is help protect them from genital warts and cancer in adulthood.”
How Does HPV Spread?
According to the CDC:
“You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. It is most commonly spread during vaginal or anal sex. It also spreads through close skin-to-skin touching during sex. A person with HPV can pass the infection to someone even when they have no signs or symptoms.
If you are sexually active, you can get HPV, even if you have had sex with only one person. You also can develop symptoms years after having sex with someone who has the infection. This makes it hard to know when you first got it.”
How do I know if I have HPV?
There is no one universal test to find out someone’s HPV status, nor is there an approved test available to identify HPV in the mouth or throat. However, there are specific HPV tests that can screen for cervical cancer for women ages 30 years and up. Routine cervical cancer screening for women ages 21 to 65 years old are also recommended by the CDC.
According to the CDC: “Most people with HPV do not know they have the infection. They never develop symptoms or health problems from it. Some people find out they have HPV when they get genital warts. Women may find out they have HPV when they get an abnormal Pap test result (during cervical cancer screening). Others may only find out once they’ve developed more serious problems from HPV, such as cancers.”
How Common Is HPV in Women VS. Men?
While things like cervical cancer screenings are only available for women, that doesn’t mean that HPV isn’t a problem that affects men too. In fact, according to an article published by The World in 2012, “A study released by the American Society of Clinical Oncology in the January 26 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association has found that 10.1 percent of men were infected with HPV of one type or another, compared with just 3.6 percent of women.”
This means that HPV was nearly three times as common in men as it was in women at the time of the study’s findings.
The bottom line is that both men and women alike are at risk of getting HPV and potentially experiencing further health problems caused by the virus.
Can Does HPV Affect Pregnancy?
HPV in pregnant people can cause them to get genital warts or develop abnormal cell changes in the cervix. Routine cervical cancer screenings can help identify abnormal cell changes. You should still get routine cervical cancer screenings when you are pregnant, according to the CDC.
Treatment Options for HPV
While there is no treatment available for HPV in and of itself, treatments are available for further health problems that HPV can cause.
According to the CDC:
- Genital warts can go away with treatment from your healthcare provider or with prescription medicine. If left untreated, genital warts may go away, stay the same, or grow in size or number.
- Cervical precancer treatment is available. Women who get routine Pap tests and follow up as needed can find problems before cancer develops. Prevention is always better than treatment.
- Other HPV-related cancers are also more treatable when found and treated early. Source: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)
The Bottom Line
The best way to prevent getting HPV is to get fully vaccinated against the virus before you become sexually active, however there are options for those who wish to get the vaccine even if they are beyond the CDC’s recommended age group to do so. Practicing safe sex by using protective barriers (like condoms) can also prevent HPV transmission. To learn more about how to protect against HPV with the HPV vaccine, talk to your doctor today.