HPV and Cancer: What You Need to Know

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We understand: Sexually transmitted disease is an uncomfortable topic. It doesn’t exactly make for good dinner conversation, and it can be awkward to bring up with anyone – especially your partner.

 Unfortunately, HPV (human papillomavirus), affects over half of all sexually active men and women, so it’s important to understand what it is and how to prevent it from spreading.

“What’s so unique about HPV is how common it is,” said Neely Nelson Wade, MD, an Adena Obstetrics and Gynecology Physician. “If you’re sexually active, you’ve probably been exposed to multiple strains of HPV.”

What is HPV?

HPV is a grouping of over 200 viruses, some of which can be spread through different types of sexual contact. Sexually transmitted HPV falls into two basic categories:

  • Low-risk HPVs – which can cause warts (but no disease)
  • High-risk HPVs – which can cause cancer

Your immune system can usually control the spread of low-risk HPVs in your body. Sometimes, a high-risk HPV infection can linger for many years and, if left untreated, can cause cancer.

 “The other unique thing about HPV, compared to some other STDs, is that your immune system can get rid of the infection,” Dr. Wade said. “In certain patients, a lingering infection causes a transformation of the cells and we start to see precancerous and ultimately cancerous cells over time.”

What types of cancer can I get from HPV?

 HPV-related cancers can include:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Oropharyngeal (throat) cancers
  • Anal cancer
  • Penile cancer
  • Vaginal cancer
  • Vulvar cancer

Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-related cancer. Research has found that it can take 10 to 20 years, or even longer, for HPV-infected cervical cells to develop into a cancerous tumor.

If you are a woman whose cervical cells are infected with high-risk HPV, several factors can increase the chance that the infection can lead to precancerous cervical cells. These include:

  • Having an aggressive type of HPV, which requires diagnostic testing with a colposcopy
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Having a weakened immune system

How does HPV spread

Simply put: HPV is transmitted through any intimate skin-to-skin contact. That includes any type of sexual activity.

How can I lower my risk of getting HPV?

If you are sexually active, odds are you have had some type of HPV in your life and not known it. HPV infections usually don’t cause symptoms, so it’s important to have regular screenings for cervical cancer.

There are simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your partner:

  • Get vaccinated - If you weren’t vaccinated for HPV as an adolescent, talk to your doctor about current vaccine options.
  • Use condoms – Direct contact causes HPV, so use condoms every time you have sex from start to finish.
  • Get regular checkups – Medical and dental checkups are one of the most important things you can do for your sexual health.
  • Identify symptoms – HPV can cause genital warts, which are small, flat bumps in the genital area. Early signs of cancer can include lumps, redness, bleeding, itching, iteration, and sores that don’t heal.
  • Practice good hygiene – After sex, try to wash your genitals with soap and water to clean away bacteria and viruses. It’s also a good idea to urinate to rinse germs from your body.

    Can I get screened for HPV-related cancer?

Even if you don’t have symptoms, you can be screened for related diseases. The goal is to find precancerous cells at an early stage to prevent cancer from developing.

Screening for cervical cancer is important for anyone with a cervix, including women and transgender men who still have a cervix. Cervical cancer screening includes:

  • An HPV test to check cervical cells for high-risk HPV
  • A Pap test to check for cervical cell changes that can be caused by high-risk HPV
  • An HPV/Pap test to check for both high-risk HPV and cervical cell changes

There are no FDA-approved tests to detect other types of HPV infections or HPV-caused cell changes. However, two tests can still be recommended: 

  • Anal cancer screening – An anal Pap test (or an anal Pap smear) may be able to detect precancerous cells for men who have sex with men or men who are HIV positive.

  • Oral cancer screening - The American Dental Association recommends dentists check for signs of oral and oropharyngeal cancer as part of a routine dental check-up.

Are there treatment options for HPV infection?

The HPV infection itself can’t be treated, but there are treatments available to remove issues in problem areas, such as:

  • Loop electrosurgical procedure (LEEP) to remove abnormal tissue
  • Topical medicines, surgical removal, cryosurgery and laser therapy for lesions and genital warts

    Though not a treatment, an HPV vaccine is ultimately your best defense against an HPV infection.

“We recommend that children are vaccinated before they are exposed to it, Dr. Wade said. “Ages 9-13 is the best time to do it. But, even if you are in your 20s, 30s, or even your early 40s, you can get it. Like any vaccine, it’s best to have protection before your immune system is exposed for the most benefit, but you would still have benefit later in life.”

If you have questions or are due for your annual visit, call Adena Women’s Health at 740-779-7201 to schedule an appointment.