Most people probably associate the word epidemic with obesity or diabetes. While their reasoning is perfectly valid, they should also start thinking HPV. It’s effectively the most-talked-about sexually transmitted infection, but we don’t seem to be doing a good job of slowing its roll. One 2014 study estimates almost 70% of Americans have some form of HPV.
Clearly we need to get a little smarter about this virus. While everyone can benefit from doing some research, women need to be particularly wary due to the potential for developing cervical cancer. Because of this, we’re sharing what you need to know, so you can make smart choices and keep yourself protected.
1. There are tons of different HPV strains
Let’s get a little more specific to fully understand HPV. Despite what you may think, it isn’t strictly a sexually transmitted infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are around 100 different HPV strains currently identified, with about 40 causing genital infections. Keep in mind, this means roughly 100 have been fully identified. A report published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer explains there are plenty more that have been partially identified. This shouldn’t be cause for panic, though, because some strains aren’t specific to humans and, again, not all of them lead to problems with sexual health.
2. Vaccination doesn’t guarantee protection
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the first HPV vaccine was released in 2006, thinking it essentially eliminated the risk of contracting the infection. But even if everyone follows the CDC’s recommendation to get vaccinated, or have their child vaccinated at around age 11 or 12, there is still no guarantee. Women’s Health points out while the vaccines target the strains most responsible for cancer, they don’t cover all the bases. There also isn’t any research for long-term efficacy, with most studies limited to around five years. Getting vaccinated is absolutely important, but it’s not an excuse to be careless.
3. There’s no HPV test for men
Unfair though it seems, there isn’t an approved HPV test for males. Unfortunately, the news gets worse. One 2011 study found about half of men in the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil have HPV. This is less surprising when you consider how easily it can spread. Everyday Health explains the virus is transmitted by skin-on-skin contact, so condoms are far less effective in preventing the spread of HPV than they are other STIs.
So what can men do? Limiting sexual partners is clearly the safest route, but everyone’s sex life is different. Males can, however, reduce their chances of contracting and spreading HPV by getting vaccinated. The National Cancer Institute reports men can receive the vaccination through age 21. In some cases, they can get it all the way through age 26.
4. It can manifest in different ways
In an ideal world, every incidence of HPV would be caught with a test right away or clear up on its own (more on that in a bit). Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality. Like some other STIs, HPV can result in genital warts. The good news here is, according to the American Cancer Society, the strains that result in warts are generally the less risky ones. The story went on to explain doctors generally worry more about high-risk HPV strains, usually HPV 16 and 18, because they can cause cell changes that lead to cancer.
If your doctor does detect these changes, which he or she will usually call dysplasia, your specific case will fall under one of two camps: high-grade or low-grade. While the risk for cancer with low-grade dysplasia is low, it still exists. Obviously, high-risk is more worrisome. The University of Maryland Medical Center reports 30% to 50% of high-grade dysplasia cases result in cancer if left untreated.
As we hinted before, HPV can clear up on its own. In fact, one article published in Infectious Diseases in Obstetrics and Gynecology explains our body’s immune system usually clears up the virus before it has a chance to cause any complications.
5. There’s no cure for the virus
This point is short, but important. There is no cure for HPV. Like the flu, it’s a virus and can’t be treated with antibiotics. Because this is the case, prevention is always the best defense. Getting vaccinated and scheduling regular pelvic exams will go a long way toward minimizing any woman’s risk.
6. Even though there isn’t a cure, you can still take action
While there’s no magic pill to clear up HPV, you can still take steps to minimize damage. WebMD says women who are experiencing abnormal cell changes can either choose to wait and monitor or go for one of four treatment options. Before settling on any specific treatment, always have a thorough talk with your doctor. Since low-grade dysplasia often clears up without treatment, waiting may actually be your best option.
For those who find themselves dealing with warts, the story went on to say patients can choose to go with creams. These topical solutions really vary in terms of efficacy, though. In some cases, patients may choose to have the warts removed. Once again, it’s best to weigh your options. Your doctor can provide information, but whether or not to pursue something aggressive is ultimately your decision.
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