Sensible Advice about HPV

How the most common sexually transmitted infection became a leading cancer killer.

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How do you get HPV?

People can become infected through oral, vaginal or anal sex, through skin-to-skin, genital-to-genital and genital-to-mouth contact with an infected person. Although HPV is typically acquired during anal and vaginal intercourse with an infected partner, penetration is not necessary. People can also become infected when they are just "fooling around."

What are some HPV-associated cancers?

Almost 90% of anal cancers, 40% of vulvar, vaginal and penile cancers; 25% of mouth; and 35% of throat cancers are caused by HPV. Some research is also looking into the role of HPV in certain types of prostate, lung and breast cancer. But of all the HPV-associated cancers, cervical cancer is the most burdensome. Almost 100% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV, killing 270,000 women worldwide every year. Although not all infections with high-risk HPV will cause cancer, there is no way to know when and if it will happen.

How do you know you have HPV?

That's the tricky part. You probably won't, not without testing. And even then, tests are not able to detect all HPV types. If you are looking for symptoms there are few to none. Some lesions are flat and practically invisible and you can unknowingly come in contact with infected cells on a partner who might not be aware they are infected. If lesions do show up, they will appear a few weeks after contact. You might be able to see genital warts if they sit on the surface of the skin (can look like a cauliflower). But you might not be able to see anything because infections can be hidden deep in the throat, inside the vagina, on the surface of the cervix or inside the anus.

How do you test for HPV?

HPV-specific tests, while not typically performed during a routine gynecological exam as a screening tool, can detect some HPV types but not all. The HPV test takes a sample of cervical cells and sends it to a lab for analysis. It is usually performed in conjunction with a PAP test, but you may need to ask for the HPV test specifically. Most experts don’t recommend screening women with the HPV test until they have reached the age of 30.