Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection, with more than 14 million Americans infected each year. You have probably noticed television commercials for the HPV vaccine. If you have a family, your pediatrician may have strongly suggested the vaccine to guard against some cancers that are triggered by HPV. Although HPV is a common infection, it should be taken seriously as its consequences may include cancer.
Women can ease their worries about HPV by taking the necessary precautions and educating themselves on this topic.
Let’s discuss five things that women should be aware of regarding HPV, the available vaccines, and the risks of contracting this virus.
1. Remove The Shame Surrounding HPV
Women do not need to feel ashamed about HPV. Anyone who’s experienced sexual intercourse may have been exposed to HPV. There are numerous options for handling HPV, and being aware of your options is empowering.
2. Cervical Disease is Linked with Certain Types of HPV
Did you know there are over 100 types of HPV that exist? However, there are only about a dozen of them that are associated with cervical cancers and precancerous cervical lesions. Roughly 70% of all cervical disease is caused by either HPV 16 or HPV 18. On the other hand, genital warts are a distinct form of low-risk HPV, and they don’t cause cancer.
Women can take preventative measures for HPV by scheduling an annual Pap smear exam. Pap tests are designed to detect abnormal cervical cells known as lesions. Lesions are caused by the virus infecting the cells of the skin or mucous membranes and can be classified into two types: low-grade lesions, which are also known as warts; and cancerous lesions.
Low-grade lesions are generally benign, meaning they will not lead to cancer. They sometimes appear as flat or raised bumps. In some cases, they may require treatment if they become large or bothersome. Cancerous lesions form when HPV penetrates deep into cells, causing them to become abnormal and malignant.
Most cervical cancers are caused by high-grade, untreated lesions that contain precancerous cells. If you have a strong immune system, it may take up to 15 years for cervical cancer to develop from these high-grade lesions. However, it is important to note that not all high-grade lesions will develop into cancer. The body’s immune system may eliminate the precancerous cells before they become malignant.
3. Head and Neck Cancers Can Also Be Caused By HPV
HPV is also known to cause oropharyngeal cancer, which is cancer in the back of the throat. HPV spreads to these areas primarily through oral sex. This type of cancer is becoming more prevalent than ever.
Although women can get this cancer, the vast majority who get it are heterosexual men. There is unfortunately no way to screen for oropharyngeal cancers, making it all the more important that parents get their children vaccinated, including boys.
4. Developing Cervical Cancer From HPV is Rare
Even though most cervical cancers are caused by HPV, the chances of developing cervical cancer from HPV is fortunately still considered very rare. For 90 percent of women with an HPV infection, the illness will typically go away on its own within two years. Of the women having an HPV strain that could result in cervical cancer, only an extremely small number will develop the illness.
A more common consequence of HPV infection is called cervical dysplasia. This is where abnormal cells develop in the opening of the uterus. Rest assured, this condition may also be found during a routine Pap test. If caught early, it can be treated and will rarely lead to cancer or other diseases.
5. Vaccines Are The Key To Prevention
There are vaccines available that can help protect against the virus. HPV vaccines can be given to children starting as early as 9 years old. The Gardasil vaccine is highly effective at preventing HPV infections and the diseases associated with it.
Clinical studies have shown that Gardasil is nearly 100% effective in preventing cervical, vulvar, and vaginal infections and precancers caused by all seven cancer-causing HPV strains. The safety record of this vaccine is also impressive as it has been rigorously tested before being released into the market.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, July 23). HPV infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines. National Cancer Institute. (2021).
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