One study suggests that among university students, over 75% had heard of Human Papillomavirus, or HPV. But, what exactly is HPV and what is its significance in health? HPV is a complicated virus, and so it’s perhaps no surprise that many HPV misconceptions still exist.  We’ll cover some of the basics of HPV in this blog post and clarify some common questions.

Let’s start off with the basics. What is HPV?

Human Papillomavirus is a family of viruses, which includes over 100 different types of HPV. In general, HPV is spread through all types of skin-to-skin contact. Different types of HPV play different roles in the body. Some HPV types exist on the body’s surface with no known health consequences. Other types of HPV go on to cause warts—this includes common warts (for example, those on people’s hands and feet), and also includes genital warts. Still other HPV types go on to cause cancer. So, the take-home message is: different types of HPV, different potential consequences. What’s important to note is that having HPV doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop the things HPV causes, like warts or cancer.

Is HPV a sexually transmitted infection?

All types of HPV are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Usually when we hear about “HPV”, people are actually taking about genital HV infection, which can be spread through sexual contact. It doesn’t necessarily take intercourse to transmit genital HPV – any contact between skin surfaces (ie, between genitals; hand to genitals; during anal, oral or vaginal sex) can transmit HPV.

What types of cancer can HPV cause?

Originally, research found that HPV was a necessary cause of cervical cancer – meaning that you had to have HPV infection to have cervical cancer. (The converse isn’t true – many people have HPV infection without having cervical cancer.) In recent years, though, HPV has been associated with various other types of cancer,  including:

  • Vaginal and Vulvar Cancers (females):  thought to be caused by HPV transmitted during vaginal sex
  • Penile Cancer (males): thought to be caused by HPV transmitted during vaginal or anal sex
  • Anal Cancer (males and females): thought to be caused by HPV transmitted during anal sex
  • Head-and-neck Cancers (males and females): thought to be caused by HPV transmitted via oral sex

How common is HPV?

HPV infection is very common. It is estimated that at least 50% of sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. Again, just having HPV infection doesn’t necessarily mean that the infection will be symptomatic or will progress to something serious.

Is HPV a women’s disease?

No. Both men and women can transmit HPV, acquire HPV, and experience potential consequence of HPV infection. For women, potential consequences of HPV infection include warts, cervical cancer, vaginal cancer, vulvar cancer, head-and-neck cancer, and anal cancer. For men, potential consequences of HPV infection include warts, penile cancer, head-and-neck cancers and anal cancer.

Is HPV the same thing as Herpes?

Nope. Although both HPV and HSV are common (and often asymptomatic) viral infections which can be sexually transmitted, they are very different viruses. People sometimes conflate warts caused by HPV with the lesions/sores caused by HSV.

How do you prevent HPV infection and HPV-related diseases?

Condom use during sexual contact lowers the risk of acquiring and transmitting HPV between partners. Additionally, there are two types of HPV vaccination currently available, which may provide HPV immunity and lesson the likelihood of HPV infection and HPV-related diseases. For women, there are two vaccines available: Gardasil, which provides protection against the HPV types responsible for most warts and cervical cancer; and Cervarix, which provides protection against the HPV types responsible for most cervical cancer. Both Gardasil and Cervarix are recommended for young women up to the age of 26. Additionally, men can receive the Gardasil vaccine and reduce the likelihood HPV-related warts, and anal cancer.  Note that HPV vaccine is available at Campus Health Services.

Women can also lessen the burden of potential HPV-related diseases by obtaining regular pap smear exams. Pap smears (or pap tests), part of a well-woman’s exam, can detect genital HPV infection. Genital HPV infections may produce an “abnormal” Pap test result. Following an abnormal result due to HPV infection, a health care provider will monitor the progress of the HPV infection with follow-up Pap tests to ensure that it does not progress to cancer.

Comment back with any questions you have about HPV, and we’ll respond with answers.

For more HPV information, please see the CDC’s HPV health information page:  http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm

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