What is HPV?

HPV is the Human Papillomavirus. HPV is a grouping of approximately 150 similar viruses, each differentiated with a number. Low risk HPV viruses cause genital warts; high risk HPV viruses can lead to cervical cancer. Papilloma is the Latin name for the warts that accompany many of these viruses. Some forms of HPV are linked to cancer, the most common being cervical cancer. HPV is the most common of sexually transmitted infections. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 70% of the population of the United States has the virus. The virus can be transmitted even when the infected person has no signs or symptoms. Symptoms can sometimes take years to present. Males have no symptoms of high risk HPV infection.

If I contract HPV, does that mean I will definitely develop cervical cancer?

Not necessarily. Not all Human Papillomaviruses cause cancer, for example, the viruses that are responsible for genital warts do not cause cancer. However, besides cervical cancer, HPV can cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or the back of the throat including the tongue and tonsils. It can take years, even decades for cancer to develop after HPV is contracted. Currently there is no way to tell which people with HPV will develop cancer or other health problems. People with weakened immune systems may be more susceptible as their bodies will be less able to fight of HPV.

What can I do to protect myself?

The most important thing you can do to protect yourself from HPV is to get vaccinated. Boys and girls should be vaccinated around the age of 11 or 12 and people up to the age of 26 can catch up with the vaccinations. If you are not vaccinated and are sexually active, practice safe sex, use condoms and practice monogamy. While there is no test specific for HPV, you should also have regular screenings for cervical cancer and other STDs. HPV can be diagnosed from a Pap smear.