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How to Protect Yourself from Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted virus that may increase the risk of developing cancer, primarily cervical cancer. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection, affecting about 79 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There are many different strains of the virus. Many people don’t even know they have HPV because it often causes no symptoms. This makes it harder to know if you have sex with someone who has the virus and may pass it on to you.

How HPV Can Affect Your Health

HPV infections often have no symptoms, go away on their own, and don’t cause health problems. But some strains of human papillomavirus may cause more serious health issues.

Cervical Cancer

An HPV infection may increase a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that almost 14,000 women in the U.S. received a cervical cancer diagnosis in 2020.

Other Cancers

HPV can also cause cancer of the throat, anus, penis, vagina, or vulva. Cancer can occur in females and males.

Genital Warts

These bumpy or flat growths may appear on the penis, vulva, vagina or cervix, or in or around the anus.

Pregnancy Complications

Large warts may bleed or make it difficult for vaginal tissue to stretch during childbirth.

The Best Way to Lower Your HPV Risk

The most effective way to protect yourself from getting human papillomavirus is to be vaccinated against it. Gardasil 9, the HPV vaccine offered in the U.S., targets the virus strains most likely to cause cancer in both males and females. After receiving the vaccine, your body produces antibodies that will attack the virus if you’re ever exposed to HPV.

Providers typically vaccinate people between the ages of 11 to 26. But children as young as nine can receive the vaccine too. Kids under 15 need two shots; those over 15 need three.

According to the National Cancer Institute, infections with two common strains of HPV decreased by 83% in girls aged 15 - 19 and 66% in women aged 20 - 24 after the introduction of the vaccine.

According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Gardasil was also effective in preventing HPV infections and genital sores in men.

Routine Screenings

Don't forget to schedule your routine appointment for your pap and HPV test.

You Also Need Routine Screenings

Women should routinely get screenings for the presence of HPV and cervical cancer. Pap and HPV tests involve removing a sample of cells from the cervix with a small brush. Pap tests can identify abnormal or cancerous cells, while HPV tests detect the presence of the virus.

If your HPV test is positive, your doctor may recommend that you have more frequent tests. You may have an increased risk of cancer in the future.

The American Cancer Society recently changed its cervical cancer screening recommendations as a result of a decline in HPV infections. It now recommends that cervical cancer screening begin at age 25 and include:

You should get these screenings even if you've had the HPV vaccine. The ACS suggests that screenings can be stopped after age 65 if regular screenings have been done during the previous ten years with normal results.

Safe Sex Practices Also Help Lower HPV Risk

Reducing skin-to-skin sexual contact through the use of condoms also helps protect you from developing human papillomavirus and other sexually transmitted infections.

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