If you’ve been putting off getting your pap smear, there’s one big reason you should make that appointment: the human papillomavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV and approximately 14 million people become newly infected every year, making it the most common STD. Plus, of the eight out of 10 women who contract HPV at some point in their lives, most of them will never even know they have the virus.
Here are five things you might not know about this super-common (but preventable) STD.
1. There are over 200 different strains of HPV
HPV isn’t actually a single virus, but a group of more than 200 related viruses. According to the National Cancer Institute, sexually transmitted HPV types fall into two groups: high-risk and low-risk. Most low-risk types don’t lead to disease, but some can cause genital warts and in rare cases, recurrent respiratory papillomatosis — the growth of benign tumors in the respiratory tract. High-risk HPVs can cause several types of cancer. There are about 14 high-risk HPV types, which can cause several types of cancer.
2. High-risk HPV strains cause nearly all cases of cervical cancer
While HPV does not generally place a man at a much higher risk for health problems, high-risk HPV strains cause nearly all cases of cervical cancer in women. However, if a woman has HPV or cervical dysplasia (changes in the cells of the cervix), it doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll get cervical cancer.
“The chances of having an HPV strain that’ll turn into cancer is low, and most HPV infections clear on their own without intervention,” Jessica Shepherd, M.D., OB-GYN and gynecologic surgeon at Baylor University Medical Center, tells SheKnows. “But sometimes it stays and can develop into several types of cancer, including cervical cancer.”
3. HPV can stay undetected in your system for years
Shepherd tells her patients that they could still have HPV even if they’re in a long-term sexual relationship with only one partner. “The virus can stay undetected in your system for years,” she explains. “So staying up to date on cervical cancer screening is very important.”
“Many women choose to get tested before each new partner, to ensure they’re aware of their sexual health status,” says Shepherd. “Any woman opting into sexual activity should also opt in to get tested — it’s the best way to take care of your sexual health.”
STDs can spread through vaginal, oral and anal sex, and even genital skin-to-skin contact. Using barrier protection (like condoms or dental dams) consistently is another step you can take to significantly reduce your risk for HPVs and other STDs.
4. Screening is the only way to know if you have HPV
Like many STDS, HPV often doesn’t come with any symptoms, so regular screening is the only way to know if you have it. “If you’re between the ages of 30 to 65, HPV should be included as part of your routine cervical cancer screening,” says Shepherd. “If you’re between the ages of 21 to 29, you should be screened regularly with a pap smear [the American Cancer Society recommends a pap every three years between these ages], but HPV screening isn’t recommended for women in their 20s because it’s so common and likely to go away on its own. Screening after age 30 is more likely to identify persistent HPV infection that could turn into cancer.”
Cervical cancer screening is required by law to be covered under health insurance without co-pay, deductible or other out-of-pocket costs. If you don’t have insurance, there are clinics across the U.S. that provide screening at low or no cost.
“Talk to your doctor about getting a pap smear and HPV screening together,” advises Shepherd. “Pap+HPV [this is often called co-testing] together is the preferred standard for this age group and detects almost all cervical cancers, providing the benefits of two tests with just one sample.”
5. If caught early enough, cervical cancer is almost always preventable or cured
Early stage cervical cancer doesn’t usually have any signs or symptoms, but advanced staged cancer can cause abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge and bleeding after sex. “Screening can identify the presence of high-risk HPV strains and other abnormalities before they become cervical cancer,” says Shepherd. “If caught early, cervical cancer is treatable, and by detecting precancerous lesions, screening can prevent cancer.”
HPV may also cause other types of cancers, including cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus, or cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils. While there are no screening tests for these other cancers, HPV vaccination can help prevent them. (CDC recommends that 11 to 12-year-olds get two doses of HPV vaccine to protect against cancers caused by HPV; but you can get the vaccine at any age from a private doctor’s office or federally funded health center.)
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