HPV: A cancer virus

The reality is that human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is common. HPV only affects humans, and almost every human will be exposed to at least one type of HPV during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s because HPV is transmitted through direct contact.

There are over 200 subtypes of the virus, which affect the skin or tissue inside the body. Around forty of those subtypes are transferred through sexual activity. Transmission can be through direct skin-to-skin contact (a person’s skin is exposed to an infected area of another person’s skin) or through oral sex. Typically, our body’s immune system can get rid of the HPV infection in about two years.

Low-risk and high-risk are the two main groups of HPV. Low-risk HPV may cause warts but does not usually lead to cancer. When the infection lasts longer than two years, sometimes our body cannot fight the virus, and it can eventually cause cancer. There are a few high-risk HPV subtypes that have been directly linked to different types of cancer.

The CDC reports that around 36,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with HPV-related cancer each year. This includes cervical, vulvar, vaginal, penile, anal, throat and oropharyngeal (mouth) cancers. Cervical and head and neck cancers are the most diagnosed HPV-related cancers. In 2015, throat cancer became the most common HPV-related cancer in the U.S., surpassing cervical cancer.

Is HPV Preventable?

For some, HPV may not present signs or symptoms. However, you can make a couple of decisions to prevent infection. The American Cancer Society recommends using protection and limiting your number of sex partners.

Another way to prevent HPV is to get the HPV vaccine which protects against subtypes that cause many HPV-related cancers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the vaccine through age 45, though it is only recommended for children and adults ages 9 through 26. By 26 years old, most people may have already been exposed to HPV, so vaccination may not have many benefits past that age. Patients 27 to 45 should speak with their doctor to see if they should be vaccinated.

Cancer Screenings for HPV-related Diseases

It is always a good idea to receive routine cancer screenings. Starting at age 21, females should consult their obstetrician and gynecologist (OBGYN) about if they should receive an HPV test when screening for cervical cancer.

For men and women, when visiting the dentist regularly, ask your specialist about performing a check of your gums, tongue and throat. Your dentist can look in your oral cavity for possible signs that could lead to head and neck cancer.

If you need a primary care physician to consult your benefits of cancer screenings, such as an OBGYN, you can find a McLaren provider accepting new patients here.