Odds are that you now have or have had a sexually transmitted disease but don’t know it. Genital human papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV, infects nearly every man and woman at some point during his or her lifetime.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 40 HPV types that can infect the genital areas of males and females. These HPV types can also infect the mouth and throat.
The reason most people who become infected with HPV don't know they have it is because most people don’t develop symptoms or health problems. In 90% of cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV naturally within two years. In the meantime though, you can innocently pass the virus to your partner. HPV may be detected fairly soon after exposure, or may not be found until many years later.
The virus is so common that having only a single lifetime partner does not assure protection. Most sexually active couples share HPV until the immune response suppresses the infection.
Monogamous partners are not likely to reinfect each other with the same virus multiple times. When HPV infection goes away, the immune system will remember that HPV type and keep a new infection of the same HPV type from occurring again. However, because there are many different types of HPV, becoming immune to one HPV type may not protect you from getting HPV again if exposed to another HPV type. Condoms offer some, but not complete protection from HPV and increasing numbers of partners increases the risk of getting HPV.
The ugly side of HPV is that certain types can cause genital warts in men and women, and although rare, these genital warts can develop in the throat, a condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis or RRP.
Other HPV types can cause cervical cancer. These types can also cause other, less common but serious cancers, including cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and head and neck (tongue, tonsils and throat).
It is important to note that the types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancer. There is no way to know who will get HPV that will ultimately develop cancer or other health problems. To put it bluntly, it’s the luck of the draw.
The frightening aspect of cervical cancer is that it usually does not have symptoms until it is quite advanced, and like all cancers, harder to treat. For this reason, it is important for women to get regular cervical cancer screenings. Screening tests—most commonly the Pap test—can find early signs of disease so that problems can be treated early, before they ever turn into cancer. Men are typically screened clinically with a visual inspection to check for lesions (such as warts) but there is no specific way to test directly for HPV in men that is approved for clinical use.
Women should start getting regular Pap tests at age 21 or within three years of the first time you have sex—which ever happens first. The Pap test is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests available. It also can find other conditions that might need treatment, such as infection or inflammation.
In addition to the Pap test, the HPV test may be used for screening women aged 30 years and older, or women of any age who have unclear Pap test results.
If you are 30 or older, and your screening tests are normal, your chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years is very low. For that reason, your doctor may tell you that you will not need another screening test for up to three years. But you should still go to the doctor regularly for a check-up that may include a pelvic exam.
Keep in mind it’s important for you to continue getting a Pap test regularly—even if you think you are too old to have a child, or are not having sex anymore. If you are older than 65 and have had normal Pap test results for several years, or if you have had your cervix removed (due to a hysterectomy), your doctor may tell you it is OK to stop getting regular Pap tests.
Most Pap tests are normal, but if your Pap test results show cells that are not normal and may become cancer, your doctor will let you know if you need to be treated. In most cases, treatment prevents cervical cancer from developing. It is important to follow up with your doctor right away to learn more about your test results and receive any treatment that may be needed.
Lynette Summerill, is an award-winning journalist who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues, she writes a blog, Nonsmoking Nation, which follows global tobacco news and events.