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HPV - What You Need To Know

What is HPV?

HPV (Human Papillomavirus) refers to a large family of viruses that affect both men and women. It is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection in the US and is transmitted by simple contact. Different strains of HPV can cause small warts or growths on the skin, plantar warts on the foot, warts in the genital area or around the anus, and can also infect the cervix leading to abnormal pap tests. Some HPV strains can cause cancer.

Transmission

  • Sexual contact – HPV is easily transmitted by any intimate contact. Condoms reduce but do not completely prevent transmission. Teenagers pick up this infection very easily but also fight it off quickly.
  • Nonsexual contact – Simple warts and plantar warts spread through skin to skin contact. As these warts do not cause long-term complications, vaccination is not directed toward these strains.
  • From mother to baby (“vertical transmission”) – A woman with a genital HPV infection can pass on the virus to her infant during birth. Most of these infections resolve spontaneously within 9 to 12 months. A rare condition called recurrent laryngeal papillomatosis is most likely acquired from this type of transmission.

Low-Risk and High-Risk Strains

HPV changes the life cycle of the cells it infects, and can cause them to divide more than they should. Many strains of HPV lead to growth of warts, which can be unsightly but do not cause dangerous health problems. These are called “low-risk” strains. Types 6 and 11 are the low-risk strains that cause most genital warts, and these are covered by the HPV9 vaccine.

Other strains are called “high-risk” because if the infection lasts for years, the cells might change enough that they grow in a cancerous way. This means the abnormal cells can invade into the body and cause local damage or even death. HPV type 16 is the most common strain that acts this way. Type 18 is much less common but is more aggressive. The HPV9 vaccine covers types 16 and 18, as well as the five other most common high-risk strains.

When high-risk strains infect the cervix, they cause noncancerous changes first, which we can detect with Pap testing. Cervical cancer is uncommon in women who have regular Pap tests, because if we detect the noncancerous changes, we can treat the infection long before cancer develops. We now use testing for high-risk HPV along with the standard Pap test, which lets us do more involved testing quickly for the women who need it, and do fewer Pap tests for the women at lower risk.

High-risk strains of HPV are also connected to cancer of the mouth, throat, and tonsils (“oropharyngeal cancer”), penile cancer, and anal cancer. There is not yet a well-defined pathway for detecting and monitoring these infections. 

Prevention

  • Abstinence or limited sexual partners - The best way to prevent any sexually transmitted disease is to abstain from sexual contact, limit your sexual partners, and use barrier protection like condoms. However, you could have one partner and still contract the virus.
  • Get vaccinated - To prevent the problems that HPV can cause the University of Vermont Medical center offers the HPV9 vaccine which protects against the strains of HPV that are responsible for most cases of genital warts and cancer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and many other expert groups recommend that boys and girls age 11 or 12 get the HPV vaccine series, which is three shots over six months. It can be given starting at age 9. It is also recommended for those 13 to 26 years old who didn't get the vaccine when they were younger.

The best time for your child to get the vaccine is before he or she becomes sexually active. This is because the vaccine works best before there is any infection with HPV. When the vaccine is given at this time, it can prevent almost all infection by the types of HPV the vaccine guards against.

Experienced, Trusted Care

As an academic medical center, our expert team provides the most advanced care backed by research. We make all diagnostic, prevention and treatment recommendations based on the latest thinking in the field. In fact, advancing medical knowledge through research is one of our core missions.

To receive the HPV vaccine or discuss concerns you might have about infection, contact your primary care physician to schedule an appointment.