Many people ask me about the human papillomavirus (HPV), particularly since the release and wide marketing of Gardasil, one of the world’s two HPV vaccines (and the only one currently FDA-approved for sale in the United States). Here are some things that you should know about HPV.
1. HPV is NOT – I repeat, NOT – the same as HIV. These are two VERY different viruses. HPV stands for the human papillomavirus and HIV stands for the human immunodeficiency virus.
2. How common is HPV? Some research reports suggest that as many as 60 to 80% of sexually active adults have been exposed to HPV through vaginal sex, anal sex or oral sex.
3. How is HPV transmitted? HPV can be transmitted through vaginal sex, anal sex or oral sex. And yes, even if you stick it in “just a little” or “just for a minute”.
4. What is HPV? HPV refers to a virus although there are more than 100 strains of HPV. Some of these strains are sexually transmissible (meaning, they can be passed from one person to another during sexual contact); others are not.
5. What happens to someone if they get HPV? Scientists are still trying to understand the course of infection (what happens to a person once they get infected with HPV, how long it lives in their body, etc). As I mentioned before, about 60 to 80% of adults have been estimated to have come into contact with HPV through sexual contact. Not everyone who is exposed to HPV gets symptoms of HPV. Some strains of HPV can cause genital warts. Sometimes these warts very obviously look like warts; other times they look like little pimples and other times they can barely be seen by the naked eye. Other times a person might have a wart-related strain but never get any warts at all (i.e., they might be a carrier of the virus even if they don’t show the symptoms).
Other strains of HPV are what are considered “high risk” strains of HPV. These strains are associated with a higher risk for developing cervical cancer or vulvar cancer (among women), penile cancer (among men) or anal/rectal cancers (among women or men). Some recent research suggests that high risk strains of HPV may be associated with a higher risk of oral (mouth) cancers as well. This does not mean people with high risk versions will get cancer; it just means that they are at a slightly higher risk. It is important, if you have been diagnosed with a high risk strain of HPV, to follow up with your healthcare provider in the manner in which he or she recommends to you.
[Read more about whether condoms can prevent HPV, about the HPV vaccine, and about the little known fact that men cannot be tested for HPV... after the jump]
6. Can condoms prevent HPV? Condom use likely cannot prevent the transmission of HPV from one person to the next since, like herpes, it is not a virus that is transmitted through fluids but through skin to skin contact. And since condoms can’t cover all of one’s genital area skin, you can’t have total protection from HPV transmission. That said, condoms are still a highly effective means of preventing HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), chlamydia and gonorrhea (if left untreated, chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause fertility problems). Consistent and correct use of condoms can reduce a person’s risk of passing or contracting several – but not all – sexually transmissible infections (STI).
7. What’s the deal with the HPV vaccine? Gardasil, the HPV vaccine that is approved for use in the US, is highly effective against four strains of HPV – two that are mostly associated with genital warts and two that are mostly associated with “higher risk” (like the cancers described above). It does not offer protection against all strains of HPV. In addition, we need more long-term data on Gardasil – for example, if you get the three shot series now, will you need a “booster shot” in 5 or 10 years in order to maintain its effectiveness? If you have chosen to have the vaccine, please make sure that you are a smart consumer. Keep your eyes and ears open to media reports in the coming years so that you know if you need a booster shot or other follow-up care. In addition, check in with your healthcare provider at your annual wellness exams to see if any news has changed about the vaccine.
8. How can I get tested for HPV? If you are a woman, you should be getting regular Pap tests in accordance with your healthcare provider’s recommendations (some women need Pap tests every 3-6 months; other women may go 1-3 years between Pap tests). Women can be tested for HPV when they get a Pap test or during their gyn exam. At this time, we do not have HPV testing available to men. That’s not to say that we can’t test any men for HPV – it is being done in some research studies. However, scientists are still working out the details on HPV testing for men. Right now, unfortunately, we cannot offer that test to men. So if a man tells you that he has been “tested for everything” – well, that’s not exactly true as he likely has not been tested for HPV.
For more information about HPV, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site.
If you have a question about sex, love, dating, relationships, orgasm, desire, pain during sex or such, email me at DrDebby@mysexprofessor.com
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