Q: Is Human Papillomavirus (HPV) an STI (sexually transmitted infection) I need to be aware of?
A: Yes. HPV is a virus that can cause warts and cervical cancer. It is transmitted through skin-to-skin and sexual contact. Like many viruses, it exists inside human cells where it sometimes can cause problems. HPV can cause genital warts or anal warts if it infects the skin near those areas. It can also cause oropharyngeal (throat) cancer. In women specifically, it can infect cells in the cervix and cause cervical cancer. Both men and women can be carriers of HPV with little to no symptoms. The risk of HPV for men and women regardless of sexual orientation increases with the number of sexual partners. HPV can sometimes go away on its own, but there is no way to know if or when it will cause warts or cervical cancer.
Q: How can I protect myself against HPV?
A: The most important way to protect anyone from HPV is through vaccination. Vaccination can prevent HPV infections even if exposed to the virus. Since the vaccination against HPV started in 2006, genital warts and cervical cancer decreased by 88% in teen girls and 81% in young adult women. Vaccination is available to both men and women starting at age 9 until age 26. Only 2 HPV vaccines are needed 6-12 months apart if the first HPV vaccine was between ages 9-14. For individuals ages 15-26, 3 HPV vaccines are needed. People who have weakened immune systems or are older than age 26 can receive the 3 vaccines after discussing the topic with their doctor.
For men and women, condoms do protect against bodily fluids, but do not completely cover the skin so it is not 100% protective against HPV. It is important to take note of any possible warts or skin lesions in the genital or anal area and have them evaluated by a doctor.
For women, Pap smears are a swab test for HPV-infected cervical cells that may be pre-cancerous or cancerous. Pap smears start at age 21 and occur every 3 years. If abnormal cells are found, those cells need to be removed before they worsen into untreated cervical cancer. Starting at age 30, Pap smears can occur every 5 years if combined with HPV testing of those cells.
For men regardless of sexual orientation, there is no routine testing for HPV to see if one has HPV.
Of note, there is no treatment to eliminate HPV from the body once someone has been infected.
Benjamin Berthet, DO
PGY-3, Internal Medicine – Pediatrics, University of South Florida