What is HPV?

HPV is the abbreviation for human papillomavirus which is a group of more than 150 related viruses. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus and nearly all men and women will have it at some point in their lives. HPV is transmitted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or any type of intimate skin-to-skin contact. It can even be passed when an infected person has no signs or symptoms.

HPV can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina and vulva in women, cancers of the penis in men, and cancers of the anus and back of throat in both men and women. These cancers rarely show symptoms until severely advanced, which makes them dangerous and difficult to treat.

The best way to prevent HPV is by getting the HPV vaccination.

Symptoms of HPV

Most people with HPV do not exhibit any symptoms or health problems. Sometimes it can cause genital warts, which is the only form of visible HPV. Unfortunately, the high-risk types of HPV that can cause cancer are virtually invisible.

Due to the lack of symptoms, regular checkups are crucial for discovering HPV. For women, a Pap test can detect abnormal cells in your cervix. It does not directly test for cancer, or even HPV, but it can discover abnormal cell changes caused by HPV. Unfortunately, these tests are not available for men, which emphasizes the importance of males getting vaccinated.

High-risk HPV can cause normal cells to become abnormal, which in return can lead to cancer. However, the good news is that most people recover from HPV infections without any health problems. There is no exact explanation for why some people develop long-term HPV infections, precancerous cell changes or cancer. But we do know that if there is a chance to prevent these long-term infections, it is best to prevent it as soon as possible by receiving the HPV vaccination.

How does HPV cause cancer?

In most cases, when a person contracts HPV, their immune system prevents the virus from causing serious harm. But, in a small amount of those who contract it, the virus becomes a long-term infection and can lead to the normal cells becoming abnormal, cancerous cells which is known as high-risk HPV.

HPV infects epithelial cells, which are arranged in layers that cover the inside and outside surfaces of the body, including the skin, throat, genital tract and anus. Once HPV enters an epithelial cell, the virus begins to make the protein it encodes. The two proteins made by high-risk HPV are E6 and E7. These interfere with cell functions that normally prevent excessive growth, allowing the cell to grow in an uncontrolled matter and avoid cell death.

Many times, these infected cells are eliminated by the immune system. However, if persistently infected cells continue to grow, they may develop mutations in cellular genes that promote more cell growth, leading to the formation of an area of precancerous cells, and ultimately, a cancerous tumor.

There are certain factors that may increase the risk that an infection with a high-risk HPV type may develop into cancer. These include:

  • Smoking or chewing tobacco
  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Having many children
  • Long-term oral contraceptive use
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Chronic inflammation

After an initial HPV infection, it can take between 10 and 30 years until a tumor forms.

Types of cancer caused by HPV

Anal cancer

HPV can cause cancer of the anus in both men and women and is more common in people with HIV. Screening tests for anal cancer are not routinely recommended for all people. However, some experts recommend anal cytology testing for people at a higher risk of anal cancer, including men who have sex with men, women who have had cervical cancer or vulvar cancer, anyone who is HIV-positive, and anyone who has had an organ transplant.

Cervical cancer

The most common cancer linked to HPV in women. Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Cervical cancer can be found early and even prevented with screening tests such as the Pap test and the HPV test. More than half of the women in the United States who are diagnosed cervical cancer have never had or rarely had a Pap test.

Oropharyngeal cancer (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils)

HPV is found is some mouth and throat cancers in men and women. The ones found in the back of the throat are typically HPV-related. These are the most common HPV-related cancers in men. There is no screening test to find these cancers early, but many can be found during routine exams by a dentist, doctor, dental hygienist or self-exam.

Penile cancer

In men, HPV can cause cancer of the penis and is more common in men with HIV. Unfortunately, there is no screening test to find early signs of penile cancer. However, almost all penile cancers start under the foreskin of the penis and may be noticed early in the course of the disease.

Vaginal cancer

The majority of vaginal cancers contain HPV. Many vaginal pre-cancers also contain HPV. These pre-cancers may be present for years before turning into cancer. Sometimes, they can be detected with the same Pap test that is used to test for cervical cancer and pre-cancer. If a pre-cancer is found, it can be treated.

Vulvar cancer

Also caused by HPV, this is the cancer of the vulva, the outer part of the female genital organs. There is no standard screening test for this cancer other than physical exams, but it is much less common than cervical cancer.

HPV vaccine

Why is it important?

When HPV vaccines are skipped or delayed, it contributes to the burden of cancer for the next generation.

Nearly all men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. Currently, 80 million Americans are infected with HPV and about 14 million people in the United States become infected each year. The virus also can lead to six types of deadly cancers. If a person is not vaccinated, the infection continues to spread.

These numbers can only be decreased by increasing the amount of people vaccinated. Clinical trials have shown that HPV vaccines provide close to 100% protection against cervical precancers and genital warts. There also has been a 64% reduction in HPV infections among teen girls in the United States since the vaccine was first recommended in 2006. HPV is being reduced, but it is still the most common sexually transmitted virus. That is why we need you to take the shot and prevent cancer now more than ever.

The link between HPV and cancer

Most people who contract HPV will fight the infection off naturally in about two years. However, sometimes the infection stays and can cause cancers and other diseases.

HPV causes normal cells in the infected skin area to turn abnormal. Every year in the United States, this leads to 30,700 cancers in both men and women. HPV cancer usually does not have any symptoms until it has greatly advanced, which makes it very serious and difficult to treat once diagnosed.

These cancers include cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus and oropharyngeal (head, neck, and throat). HPV is actually believed to cause 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States. One of the most common cancers caused by HPV is cervical cancer, which can be seen in a woman through a Pap test. Unfortunately, there is currently no screening for HPV-related cancers recommended for men.

This is why the HPV vaccine is so important. It can prevent these cancers from ever happening. These are drastically high numbers and the vaccine is the only way to reduce them. Due to the limited and silent symptoms of HPV, for many people it is too late by the time they are diagnosed. Take the shot. Prevent cancer.

When to get it

The recommended age range to receive the HPV vaccine is 11-12 years old. However, you can still get it if you have passed this age range. If you are between ages 15 and 26 and starting the series, three doses of the HPV vaccine are needed.

For the HPV vaccine to be most effective, the series should be given prior to exposure to HPV. There is no reason to wait to vaccinate until you start having sex. In fact, it is recommended that a person should receive all recommended doses of the HPV vaccine series long before he/she begins any type of sexual activity.

While there is a level of importance to get vaccinated before your first sexual encounter, HPV vaccine is recommended based on age, not sexual experience. This means that even if you have already had sex, you likely have not been exposed to all of the HPV types that the vaccine covers. So even if a person is sexually active, the vaccine should still be given if under the age of 26.