When it comes to staying healthy, vaccines play an essential role. Vaccines consist of weakened or dead germs, made to help the body develop an immune response to potentially dangerous diseases. Vaccines help the body combat an illness much faster and much more successfully than without a vaccine. One of the diseases that a vaccine can prevent is the human papillomavirus, also known as HPV.
What is HPV?
The human papillomavirus, more commonly known as HPV, is a viral infection passed from skin-to-skin contact. HPV can affect the skin and mucosal tissue, causing warts and lesions. More than 100 types of HPV exist, and 40 of those are transmitted through sexual contact. HPV can affect the skin throughout your body, your mouth, throat, or genitals.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is HPV. HPV is highly transmissible. About 80 million Americans have existing HPV infections. Each year, about 14 million adults and teens become infected with HPV. It’s believed that without a vaccine, most people become exposed to — and most likely infected by — HPV at some point in their lives.
Symptoms of HPV
Warts are a hallmark symptom of HPV. In a majority of cases, the body fights the HPV infections before warts or lesions appear. However, when they do show up, they can be unsightly or painful.
HPV causes different types of warts. The HPV virus can cause common warts, which can appear anywhere on the body. Most often, common warts form on the hands and look like raised, rough bumps. Plantar warts, also caused by HPV, appear on the feet. These warts can cause discomfort when walking and become painful. Flat warts, which look like small discs, usually grow on the faces of men and children. In women, flat warts appear on the legs.
Genital warts, the most prevalent form of HPV, are typically found on the genitalia or surrounding area. They can also form in the cervix, penis, vagina, or near the anus. These warts look like cauliflower-type bumps, flat lesions, or small protrusions.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Unfortunately, there is no cure for HPV. Doctors can diagnose HPV by looking at a wart or lesion. However, women can have a test for HPV as part of their routine cervical screening test or PAP smear. There are medications available to help diminish the pain from warts and lesions. If warts become an issue, there are methods available to remove them. Treatments to remove warts involve freezing, burning, or surgical removal.
HPV and Cancer
One of the most problematic aspects of HPV is its ability to cause a variety of cancers. HPV can cause:
Cancer of the vulva and vagina
Cancer of the penis
Cancer of the throat, tongue, or tonsils
Cancer of the anus
According to CDC data, over 11,000 cervical cancer cases each year are caused by an HPV infection. There is currently no way to predict which HPV carriers will develop cancer and who will not. Because HPV can cause so many cancers, the best way to stop these cancers is to prevent HPV.
How to Prevent HPV
Simple changes to hygiene practices can prevent common and plantar warts. These changes include not sharing toiletries and wearing shoes or foot coverings in public pools and gyms. Because they spread through sexual contact, the prevention of genital warts occur through the practice of monogamous relationships, fewer sexual partners, and the use of latex condoms. However, none of these measures can entirely prevent HPV.
The HPV Vaccine
HPV vaccines help curb the spread of HPV. When given at a young age, even as early as age 9, the HPV vaccine can prevent an infection — reducing a person’s risk of cancer. Although the HPV vaccine isn’t effective if someone already has HPV, it prevents HPV in people who don’t have the virus. The HPV vaccine is recommended for children and young adults ages 9 to 26. People who are interested in the vaccine can consult with their doctor or their child’s pediatrician. The HPV vaccine is administered in two doses, spanning 6-12 months. It’s essential to obtain the vaccine before exposure to HPV.
The HPV vaccine prevents warts from infection and can also prevent serious illness from cancers. Reduction in infection rates and precancers are indications of the HPV vaccine’s success. Since the HPV vaccine has been in use, HPV infection rates have decreased by 86% in teenage girls. In vaccinated adult women, cervical precancers have reduced by 40%. If you’re interested in staying healthy, consult your physician or your child’s pediatrician about the HPV vaccine.