How Much Do You Really Know About HPV? All the Facts to Consider About the Most Common STI

Young woman is asking advice in her gynecologist

A young woman is asking for advice from her gynecologist | iStock.com/YakobchukOlena

It’s OK to admit it: the female reproductive system is confusing. If women are well-versed in sex-ed, they know the benefits of vaccinations to prevent cervical cancer and proper safe sex practices to reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.

However, an increasing number of women (and men!) experience an unintentional barrier to STD testing and proper safe sex practices as a result of unnecessary stigma and shame surrounding sexual health issues. Take the time to learn about an exceptionally common sexually-transmitted infection, Human Papillomavirus, as well as how you can prevent it and manage it if affected.

Yes, HPV is an STD

And the most common one out there at that. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 79 million Americans have HPV and the majority are affected in their 20s. “HPV is very common, and most people will be exposed to HPV at some time in their lives,” Dr. Grace Lau, an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU Langone Health, told The Huffington Post.

HPV is typically spread through sexual intercourse, either vaginal or anal, and is often asymptomatic. While using condoms decreases your risk of transmitting or getting HPV, they aren’t 100% effective. And while most people consider HPV a “women’s issue” considering the risk of cervical cancer, men can get HPV too … a 2014 research study found that 69% of the studied men had a strain of the virus.

There are hundreds of strains of the disease

Not all HPV strains cause cervical cancer or genital warts, the two consequences most people associate with the STD. There are high-risk strains of HPV as well as low-risk strains, and only two of the high-risk types (HPV 16 and 18) are most commonly associated with pre/cancerous cell growth.

“HPV is not just one virus, but a group of over 200 related viruses. Each virus is labeled with a number to distinguish it from the others, and different viruses can target different areas of the body and can cause different possible diseases in humans,” Lau said. “Some cause skin problems like warts and others can lead to cancers.” HPV vaccines like the Gardisal vaccination target the high-risk strains, including those that are mainly responsible for genital warts.

While HPV is commonly associated with a risk for cancers and warts, there are a significant number of low-risk strains that are effectively harmless and asymptomatic.

“Patients commonly assume that HPV is a lifelong infection that will stay with them always,” Lau said. “But most HPV infections in most people can be cleared by the immune system within one to two years.” Regardless, it’s crucial to get an annual pap smear at your gynecologist’s instruction and follow up on any HPV diagnoses.

Look for these risk factors and symptoms:

While HPV is often asymptomatic, some people show symptoms that can help them determine if they need to seek medical advice. In most cases, your body’s immune system defeats the HPV virus before warts appear. Once they do, different types of warts are indicative of different HPV strains. Symptoms of various strains of HPV include genital warts, common warts on the hands and fingers, plantar warts on the feet, or flat warts.

Certain people are at higher risk of contracting HPV than others.

Risk factors include:

  • Your number of sexual partners: You put yourself at higher risk of contracting a genital HPV infection (and various other STDs) the more partners you have. Using condoms is one way to reduce (but not rid) of the risk.
  • Age: Children are more likely to contract HPV strains that show common warts, while young adults are more likely to contract strains that result in genital warts.
  • Weakened immune systems. People with immune symptoms weakened by HIV/AIDS or immune system-suppressing drugs are at greater risk of contracting HPV.

Leave the stigma at the door

HPV and other sexual health complications have an unfair stigma attached to them. While HPV is absolutely something to get checked for and follow up on, it’s extremely common. The best way to approach HPV or any other STD is to stay proactive about treatment and your health.

“HPV is something to be aware of and to be informed about,” Lau told the Huffington Post.

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