Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are spread through sexual contact. There are more than 20 types of STDs, but the most common one is human papillomavirus (HPV).
About 79 million Americans have HPV, and an estimated 14 million are infected each year. It’s so common that most men and women contract HPV at some point in their lives.
HPV usually goes away on its own, and you may never know you had it. But sometimes, it can cause serious health complications like genital warts or cancer.
HPV is common, but it’s important to recognize how it could affect your health. Take a few moments to learn everything you never knew about HPV.
You could have HPV without knowing it
Most STDs don’t cause obvious symptoms, and HPV is no different. HPV spreads through sexual contact — including vaginal, anal, and oral sex — so you could contract it any time you have unprotected sex.
HPV usually doesn’t make you feel sick or cause any symptoms. Your immune system can fight off the infection before you ever know you have it, but you could still spread it to others before that happens.
If you do get symptoms, the most common signs of HPV are genital warts. These warts look like small bumps in your genital area, but they range in size, shape, and appearance.
HPV is linked to cancer
If left untreated, some strains of HPV can cause cellular changes in your body that lead to cancer. The most common type of cancer linked to HPV is cervical cancer, but HPV infection can also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or back of the throat.
HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer. However, cervical cancer is treatable when identified early. Regular Pap smears are the best way to protect against cervical cancer, because these screenings identify cellular changes before cancer progresses.
Dr. Van Kirk makes Pap smears part of your regular gynecologic exams. If your Pap smear results are abnormal, it doesn’t automatically mean you have cervical cancer. What it does mean is that you’ll need additional testing to reach a diagnosis.
HPV is preventable with a vaccination
There’s an FDA-approved vaccine for HPV that’s effective in both preventing HPV infection and the cancers that it can cause. Dr. Van Kirk recommends that everyone between the ages of 9-14 get the vaccination to protect their health.
The HPV vaccine is most effective when it’s administered before a person becomes sexually active. For pre-teens and teens, the vaccination involves a series of two shots over a period of one year. People in their late teens and 20s can still benefit from getting the vaccine, and they may need three shots over a period of six months.
If you’re older than 27, talk to Dr. Van Kirk about your options. Older people can still get the HPV vaccination, but it becomes less effective later in life.
HPV might be common, but it doesn’t have to compromise your health. Learn more about the HPV vaccine or schedule your next Pap smear by calling our office at 530-242-4129 or sending us a message online.