HPV (human papillomavirus) is a group of related viral infections. Some types (low-risk) cause warts on the skin or mucous membranes while others (high-risk) can cause different types of cancer. HPV infections are very common. Almost 80 million people in the U.S. are currently infected with HPV and approximately 14 million new cases are reported each year.
About 79 million people in the U.S. are currently infected with HPV and approximately 14 million become newly infected each year. Most people have no symptoms and are unaware that they are infected. While most HPV infections eventually go away as the body clears the virus, some people will develop persistent, high-risk HPV infections, which may lead to cervical and other types of rare cancers. The American Cancer Society estimates that over 12,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and more that 4,000 will die from cervical cancer in the U.S. in 2017.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is spread from person to person by intimate skin contact. A person infected with the virus can pass it to others through vaginal, anal or oral sex, even if they have no symptoms.
Some people with HPV may develop flesh-colored warts on the genital area. They can be single bumps or groups of bumps that resemble cauliflower. Others may have no symptoms at all.
In many cases, people with HPV are able to clear the infection and recover without any problem. In others, like those with weakened immune systems, the infection may persist and cause health problems. Certain strains of HPV can cause precancerous cell changes that can develop into cancer over time. HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus and throat.
The following steps can be taken to prevent HPV infection:
1. Get vaccinated. The HPV vaccine protects against 9 strains of HPV known to cause certain types of cancer and genital warts. It is given in a series of 2 or 3 shots, depending on the age of the person at the start of vaccination. CDC vaccination guidelines are as follows:
a. All preteens (including girls and boys) at age 11–12 years. Two doses of HPV vaccine are recommended to be given 6 to 12 months apart. The first dose is generally recommended at age 11–12 years old, however the series can be started at age 9 years. If vaccination is started at age 9 and through age 14, only 2 doses are needed. A third dose is needed in adolescents aged 9 through 14 years who have already received two doses of HPV vaccine less than 5 months apart.
b. Teens and young adults through age 26 years who didn’t start or finish the HPV vaccine series. Three doses of HPV vaccine are needed for teens and young adults who start the series later, at ages 15 through 26 years.
c. People with weakened immune systems aged 9 through 26 years. Three doses are recommended for these individuals.
d. Adults age 27 through 45 years. Although vaccination is not recommended for this age group, some adults who have not been vaccinated may choose to receive the HPV vaccine after discussing their risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination with their physician. Because more people in this age range have likely been exposed to HPV viruses, vaccination provides less benefit
2. Use condoms. If you are sexually active, condom use during every sex act may lower the risk of contracting an HPV infection.
3. Get screened for cervical cancer as recommended by your physician. More than 90% of cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. Vaccination and routine screenings can help prevent cervical cancer.