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This past year the pandemic highlighted the importance of vaccines and maintaining scheduled vaccinations to keep from contracting viruses. All vaccines are equally vital. But only one, the breakthrough HPV vaccine, can help prevent you from also getting cancer.

Key facts about HPV

HPV, which stands for human papillomavirus, is an extremely common disease that anyone can give or receive upon skin-to-skin contact, usually during sex. "Up to 80 percent of sexually active adults have been infected with HPV and some believe that the number infected is even higher, given the transient nature of the infection and the limitations of testing," says Summit Medical Group family medicine physician, Dr. Dana Schonberg.

Often, the body clears HPV on its own within a year. But not always.

"There are low-risk and high-risk types," says Dr. Darlene Gibbon, Summit Medical Group’s Medical Director of Gynecologic Oncology. "Low-risk subtypes may cause genital warts. But high-risk subtypes can cause different types of cancers."

If a female of any age contracts a high-risk type of HPV, her cervical cells may change over time and replicate incorrectly. If left untreated, it can eventually develop into cervical cancer.

But it's not only the cervix that is at risk. HPV can lead to mouth, throat, anal, vulvar, and vaginal cancers. It also threatens males as well, causing penile and other cancers. This is because, as Dr. Schonberg notes, "it can spread from any infected skin."

Prevention

HPV vaccination is widely available, and for both boys and girls, inoculation is recommended around the age of 11.  Dr. Gibbon emphasizes that adults can and should, in these unpredictable times, get catch-up inoculations up to age 45, noting that as people age, the efficacy of the inoculation is not as effective as in younger individuals. (After 45, it's ineffective.)

While the HPV vaccine protects children before they're sexually active, it doesn't then encourage promiscuity, as some parents worry. Studies published in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Medical Association Journal back this up. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which led the Pediatrics study, writes, "Teens living in the states that promoted the vaccine were not having more sex than teens in the other states."

All children need at least two doses; after 15 years old, they require three. You also must stick to the schedule or risk starting the series over.

In addition, Dr. Gibbon notes that other factors, in addition to being exposed to the HPV virus, increase your risk of developing precancerous or cancerous conditions, including smoking, or taking medications that lower your immune system.

Treatment

There's no treatment for HPV itself other than prevention. Pap smear screening is the most effective way to identify precancerous changes in the cervix that can be treated before they develop into cancer. In fact, HPV is the driving force behind screening interval guidelines, which change depending on age and HPV test results, Dr. Gibbon explains. Regardless of recommendations, however, she says that "it's critically important that women go on an annual basis for routine gynecologic care. This way, you can intervene and diagnose abnormal and precancerous changes before they progress."

Should a pap smear discover an abnormality, "your doctor may want to treat these changes by removing the cells using procedures like a LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure)," Dr. Schonberg says. "[But] by not smoking, by going for regular pap smears, and by following up for any necessary monitoring, you can be sure to find and treat any abnormalities long before they become cancer."

In other words, as always, the best treatment is prevention.