Maybe you’ve seen the commercials for the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, but you don’t think it’s anything to worry about. Before you shrug it off, consider these facts.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. It’s so common that about 80% of all women will get at least one of the sexually transmitted types of HPV during their lives.
In 2014, 20-25% of adults aged 18-59 had high-risk genital HPV. High-risk HPV is the type that can cause cancer. They won’t all get sick — about 6% are diagnosed with cervical cancer — but how much of a risk are you willing to take for yourself and your teen? Why should you take any risk when you can prevent cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine?
Many of our patients at Premier Women’s Care of Southwest Florida have a lot of HPV-related questions, so here’s what every woman and her daughter should know about HPV.
How HPV spreads
HPV spreads through all types of sexual contact, including vaginal, oral, and anal. You can pick up the virus by touching your partner’s genitals. Women can pass it to women, and men can transmit the virus to men.
You can spread HPV to your partner even if you don’t have symptoms. Of course, that works both ways. Your partner can give you the virus even when they feel great. You can also give HPV to your baby during childbirth.
HPV causes cervical cancer
Though HPV is a common virus, most women never know they’re infected for two reasons. First, it can take years for symptoms to develop. And second, they may never have symptoms or get sick because their immune system clears the virus out of their body.
More than 90% of new HPV infections are cleared within 6 months to 2 years after you get infected, even the high-risk types of HPV responsible for cancer.
The remaining women develop an ongoing HPV infection. As the virus grows in the cells lining your cervix, it gradually causes abnormal cell growth, ultimately turning into cervical cancer. Your risk of developing cervical cancer depends on the type of HPV — some are more likely to cause cancer than others — and your overall health.
A Pap smear detects HPV and cancerous changes
Once you know that HPV doesn’t cause symptoms, you can understand why getting a Pap smear to detect the virus is so important. All women should have their first Pap smear when they turn 21, then have a follow-up Pap every three years.
Cervical cancer grows slowly. With routine Pap smears, we can find HPV and cellular changes early, while they’re still curable.
When we take a Pap smear during your well-woman exam, we gently brush or scrape a sample of cells from your cervix, put the sample on a slide, and send it to a lab where specialists evaluate the cells.
The lab sends us a report describing what they found. For example, your Pap may be negative, meaning all the cells were normal. You could have mild abnormalities caused by HPV, severe abnormalities likely to become cervical cancer, or cancerous cells may be detected.
If you have mild abnormalities, we typically repeat the Pap smear in several months. In many cases, the cell sample was taken during an active HPV infection that your body will clear away in a few months.
When your results are moderate to severe, or if mild changes don’t improve in a few months, we perform an in-office colposcopy to identify and remove abnormal cells on your cervix. The biopsies are sent to a lab where they’re diagnosed as noncancerous or cancerous.
The HPV vaccine prevents several types of cancer
An HPV vaccine prevents genital warts as well as:
- Cervical cancer
- Vulvar cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Anal cancer
- Precancerous cervical, vulvar, vaginal, and anal lesions
These are the two most important things to know about the HPV vaccine:
HPV vaccines only protect you from future infections
The vaccine has no effect on an HPV infection or HPV-caused disease that you already have before you get the vaccine. It can only prevent problems from HPV that you’re exposed to after the vaccine.
HPV vaccines should be administered at an early age
HPV vaccinations are safe for children, and getting the vaccine at an early age means they’ll have protection before they become sexually active and at risk for HPV. We can give the shot to children and adolescents, as early as 9 years and up to the age of 45.
If you have any questions about HPV or the vaccine, call one of our offices in Cape Coral, Lehigh Acres, or Fort Myers, Florida, or use the online booking feature to schedule an appointment.