Most likely you’ve heard the phrase “HPV” casually used in the medical field. Particularly in the last few years, more information and studies have been published on HPV and there have been major pushes for vaccines. Maybe you’ve seen ads on television or have briefly skimmed pamphlets in your doctor’s office. But, if you’re not even sure what HPV is, how do you know if the vaccine is right for you?
What is HPV?
HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a group comprised of over 150 related viruses. It affects 80% of people in their lifetime, and is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Though often times HPV infections do not require treatments and fade away over time, certain types of the virus can cause genital warts (which is where the papillomas in its name comes from) as well as some forms of cancer.
With over 150 types of viruses grouped under HPV, each specific type is labeled with a coinciding number. Some types of HPV are harmless and show no physical signs of contraction. On the serious end, there are types of HPV that can cause genital warts and even cancer.
HPV can cause the following types of cancer in both men and women:
- Mouth and throat
- Cervical, vaginal, vulvar cancers in women
- Penile cancer in men
How is HPV Contracted?
HPV is so common that almost everyone contracts it at some point in their lives. In fact, it happens so easily that many people never even realize they have it and show no outward signs or symptoms. It is is commonly sexually transmitted through vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse with a person who is carrying the virus. However it can also enter the body through cuts or abrasions.
Usually, the HPV infection goes away on its own after a while. The individual may not ever realize they had been infected, and will have never exhibited any symptoms or interferences with their regular health. However when your body’s immune system doesn’t defeat the HPV infection, it may result in the appearance of warts.
Warts Caused by HPV
Depending on the type of HPV causing the infection, the type and location of warts will also vary. Genital warts are common, appearing mostly on the vulva in women, but may also occur in the vagina, on the cervix, or extend near the anus. Appearing as flat lesions, they’re usually painless, but may cause itching. The small bumps may also resemble stems or cauliflower.
Plantar warts occur on the balls of feet and heels. These rough, course growths are uncomfortable. Similarly, common warts may manifest as small protrusions along the hands and elbows. Though they may be slightly painful, in most cases they’re painless aside from any insecurity they may cause because of their visibility. Finally, flat warts can appear anywhere on the body, but they appear most commonly for women on their legs. These warts are less intrusive, as small, raised growths that appear in a darker tone than the skin they appear on.
Many types of warts can be treated by a dermatologist if they fail to fade after an extended period of time. On the more serious side are the types of HPV that do not go away and lead to cancer. Which is where the importance of getting an HPV vaccination come in, as it is designed to protect and prevent the contraction of the specific types of HPV that most often lead to warts and, more importantly, cancer.
The HPV vaccination works at its best when the recipient is young, as the immune system has a better response at this time rather than during the teenage years. It’s recommended that both boys and girls begin receiving the HPV vaccine around the age of 11 or 12, and the vaccine series can begin as young as 9.
For obvious reasons, the vaccine works at its best before coming into contact with any types of the virus. And since children at that age are not yet sexually active and are still regularly receiving vaccinations and annual examinations from a family primary care physician, it is an ideal time to administer the HPV vaccine.
Though the ideal timeframe for the vaccination series is around 11 or 12 years old, new studies have shown that both men and women can begin receiving the vaccination up to age 45. However, by then the vaccine is far less effective in lowering the risk of cancer, and peaks by 21.
Recent years have brought more awareness and skepticism in people avoiding vaccines. This is particularly true for parents. It’s understandable and in many ways a very good thing to be weary of what is being administered to your child. However, it’s also important to keep their best interests and overall health as a primary concern.
In this case, the HPV vaccine is perfectly safe. There are no potential side effects or health concerns relating to it, which has been administered millions of times in the United States. HPV vaccines have no effect on a child or young adult’s sexual development, and no studies show that it effects fertility. In many ways the vaccine helps to ensure healthy fertility in preventing cervical cancer.
Any adverse effects are minor, and due more to vaccines in general. Potential side effects of any vaccine can include pain, swelling, and redness in the area administered as well as slight dizziness or swelling. If an allergic reaction occurs, it’s often due to latex or yeast, not the vaccination itself.
Other Prevention Methods
Vaccination is by far the most effective form of preventing infection by the type of HPV that causes warts and cancer. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other healthy habits and practices that will help aid in lessening the chances of contracting the virus.
The first is to simply be aware of any risk factors, many of which are common sense. Realize that a weakened immune system or damaged areas of the skin are more susceptible to infection and developing warts. Avoid coming into physical contact with infected areas, such as touching someone else’s warts or an area like a public pool or shower that may have been exposed to the virus. Sexually active young adults put themselves at a greater risk, especially as the number of sexual partners increases.
Reduce any risk. Use protection when sexually active and not in a mutually monogamous relationship. Wear shoes or sandals in public spaces like locker rooms that seem risky. If you have warts, avoid coming in direct contact with other people and common spaces or objects.
Above all else, it’s important that you consult with your physician. Regular screenings can ensure a potential infection isn’t developing into anything more serious. Schedule a consultation with your Florida Woman Care of Jacksonville OB/GYN will assess you and help provide guidance so you can explore the HPV vaccination route to see if you or, (if applicable) your child are eligible to begin the series.