Preventing and Treating the All-Too-Common Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV shotContributed by Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, Professor of Medicine

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Certain strains of the HPV virus cause genital warts and cervical cancer. Most sexually active adults are exposed to the virus at some point in their lives. It is transmitted during sexual activity. Most people clear the virus without any ill effects, but some people are unable to fully eradicate the virus and can develop complications.

Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower.

HPV can cause cervical and other cancers including cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus. It can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (called oropharyngeal cancer). Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets HPV.

You can lower your chances of getting HPV by limiting your number of sexual partners and always practicing safe sex which includes using a condom with sexual activity. Other preventive measures include:

  • Getting vaccinated. HPV vaccines are safe and effective. They can protect males and females against diseases (including cancers) caused by HPV when given in the recommended age groups. HPV vaccines are given in three shots over six months; it is important to get all three doses.
  • Getting screened for cervical cancer. Routine screening for women aged 21 to 65 years old can prevent cervical cancer.

If you are sexually active:

  • Use latex condoms every time you have sex to lower your chances of getting HPV. But HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom – so condoms may not give full protection against getting HPV;
  • Be in a mutually monogamous relationship (have sex only with someone who only has sex with you).

All boys and girls ages 11 or 12 years should get vaccinated. HPV itself cannot be treated. However, there are treatments for genital warts and cervical cancer and experts at the Women’s Center can discuss with you how to protect you and your child from HPV and treat any problems associated it.


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