By Kimberly A. VerSteeg, D.O., FACOG
There’s a lot you can do to prevent HPV-associated cancers in men and women.
An estimated 80-85% of sexually active people will get an HPV (human papillomavirus) infection in their lifetime, and most will not know it. Fortunately, HPV usually goes away on its own within two years, but if not, HPV can lead to certain cancers and diseases. The encouraging news is that it is highly preventable by lifestyle choices and having adolescents vaccinated early against HPV before they are exposed. If you didn’t start or complete the series as an adolescent and you are under 45, it may not be too late.
HPV is the major cause of cervical cancer, as well as oropharyngeal cancer (a type of head and neck cancer) in males and females, and genital warts. It is also responsible for several other cancers in the genital area. Because cancer can take years or even decades to develop, you may not know when you first got HPV.
Risk Factors for HPV
There are many types of HPV and several risk factors for getting HPV. These include having a number of sexual partners, having sex at a young age, or the presence of other sexually transmitted infections (chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, or HIV/AIDS). A weakened immune system along with HPV also increases the risk of getting cervical cancer, oropharyngeal cancer, and other cancers caused by HPV.
There is good news!
Steps to help prevent and diagnose cancers caused by an HPV infection include:
- Parents—have pre-teens vaccinated against HPV. (See when below.)
- Contrary to some concerns, 15 years of evidence shows that there is not an increase in sexual activity in adolescents and young adults who get the HPV vaccine.
- Women – begin regular screening “Pap” tests and follow-up care starting at age 21.
- Cervical cancer (and precancerous cells) is the only HPV-associated cancer that can be detected early when it is more treatable through a pap test.
- Practicing safe sex helps reduce the risk of HPV-associated cancers and genital warts in men and women.
- Stop smoking to lower your chance of getting oropharyngeal cancer.
Recommendations for HPV Vaccination – Who and When
- Children ages 11-12 years should get two doses of HPV vaccine, given 6 to 12 months apart. They can begin the vaccine series as young as age 9.
- Teens and young adults ages 15 through 26 need three doses, given over 6 months.
- Age 27 to 45 – Talk to your healthcare provider if you did not start or complete the vaccination series by age 26. While there is less benefit since many adults over 27 may have already been exposed, the vaccine can be beneficial in preventing new HPV infections if you are at risk.
HPV Vaccine is Safe and Effective
With more than 135 million doses distributed in the U.S., the HPV vaccine has been monitored for over 15 years; they are very safe and effective. Since 2006, infections with HPV types that cause most HPV cancers and genital warts have dropped 88% among teen girls and 81% among young adult women. The percentage of cervical precancers caused by HPV has dropped 40% among those who are vaccinated.
There are possible mild side effects similar to other routine vaccines. Take advantage of getting your child vaccinated during annual check-ups, sports physicals, or when getting other immunizations like the annual flu shot.
You and your family members may be able to get the HPV vaccine as well as pap tests for women at no cost to you. Check with your insurance company, the Vaccines for Children (VFC) Program, and the Sage cancer screening programs for eligibility.
Taking small steps now can help keep you and your family safe and healthy. Begin by contacting your physician or healthcare provider about getting the HPV vaccine.
Get more information about HPV from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for men and women including treatment and care.