HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, it is so common that nearly 80 million people—one in four—are infected. Almost all sexually active men and women get HPV at some point in their lives. HPV can infect male and female genital organs and anal area, as well as the mouth and throat. It is spread mostly through genital contact (vaginal and anal sex) but can also be transmitted through oral sex.
Most HPV infections do not cause symptoms, and most people with HPV are unaware that they are infected. However, some strains of the HPV cause genital warts, and others are linked with various cancers, including cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, and anus, as well as cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and the tonsils. About 17,600 women and 9,300 men are affected by cancers caused by HPV each year. Cervical cancer caused by HPV affects more than 11,000 women in the United States each year.
The virus itself cannot be treated, but a person’s immune system usually clears HPV from the body within 2 years without having caused any health problems. However, sometimes the virus is not cleared from the body and can cause disease. Treatments exist for the diseases that are caused by HPV. Genital warts can be removed with medication or treated by a health professional. Cervical cancer can be treated if diagnosed early; therefore, it is important for women to get regular Pap tests in order to identify problems before severe complications develop.
Because HPV is transmitted through sexual contact, it can be completely avoided by abstaining from sex. If you are sexually active, try to maintain a long-term and mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner. Condoms can greatly reduce the risk of contracting HPV but because HPV can infect areas not covered by condoms, they do not completely protect against infection.
Vaccines can also reduce the risk of HPV infections and HPV-linked diseases; all boys and girls ages 11 or 12 years should get vaccinated. Catch-up vaccines are recommended for men through age 22 and for women through age 27. Men between ages 22 and 27 who have sex with other men or who are immunocompromised should also be vaccinated. Despite the availability of the vaccine, a recent study found that it is underutilized, particularly among boys. The number of HPV-associated cancers in the United States has increased by 17 percent, to nearly 39,000 cases a year. Furthermore, the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that in 2014, only 40 percent of teenage girls received all three doses of the vaccine, and only 22 percent of boys between ages 13 and 17 are being properly vaccinated. For this reason, pediatricians are encouraged to highly recommend the HPV vaccine for both boys and girls.