What is Human papillomavirus (HPV)?
Human papillomavirus (pap-uh-low-muh-vy-russ), more commonly referred to as HPV, is the name of a group of viruses that include more than 100 different strains or types. About 40 of these virus strains are sexually transmitted and can infect the genital area of men and women including the skin of the penis, vulva (area outside the vagina), anus, the lining of the vagina, cervix, or rectum.
HPV is very common; 3 out of 4 people will have HPV at some point in their lifetime. Unfortunately, most of these people will never know they have HPV, as people often show no signs of an infection. The virus usually goes away on its own; however it can take years for the infection to completely clear the body and it can create abnormal cells in the process. These abnormal cells can be detected on a Pap test.
Some HPV virus strains cause genital warts. Genital warts are flesh colored growths that usually appear on the external genitals. The warts may appear single or in clusters and are usually painless, but may cause some itching or irritation.
Certain virus strains are called “high-risk” types. These strains are labeled “high-risk” because they can lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, or penis. It may take years to develop into a cancer. They have also been linked to certain oral and throat cancers. Other virus strains are considered “low-risk” types and they can cause mild Pap test abnormalities or genital warts.
How do you get HPV?
HPV can be transmitted through sexual activity that involves genital contact with a person who is infected with the virus; this includes skin to skin contact; and oral to genital contact. Many people who are infected may not show symptoms and don’t know that they have it, so they can pass on the virus without even knowing it.
How can I tell if I have HPV?
Since many people do not show any symptoms, you need to be tested to determine if you have the virus. For women, a Pap test can detect the presence of abnormal or precancerous cells on the cervix. A Pap test can be done with a full gynecological exam. This test along with your gynecological exam can help detect precancerous cells related to HPV. Early detection of these abnormal or precancerous cells is important for successful treatment. Doctors recommend beginning routine Pap testing and pelvic exams at age 21. Currently, there is no HPV test available for men; however a clinician can identify genital warts if present.
How can I prevent HPV?
There are a few ways to prevent getting HPV, either the virus or genital warts:
- Practice abstinence -- the only 100% effective prevention method
- Receive the HPV vaccine -- before you have been exposed to the HPV is best, but even if you have possibly been exposed you should get the vaccine.
- Use a condom with every sexual act; anal, oral, and/or vaginal
- Have a single sexual partner who has no other sexual partners
Who can get the HPV vaccine?
Two vaccinations are available to help prevent HPV infections. Gardasil is available for males and females ages 9 to 26 years. Gardasil protects against two “high-risk” HPV types, which cause 75% of cervical cancer cases and certain types of anal lesions and cancers. It also protects against two “low-risk” HPV types that cause 90% of genital warts cases.
Cervarix is available only for females ages 10-25 years. Cervarix protects against two “high-risk” HPV types that cause 75% of cervical cancer cases.
It is recommended to have the vaccine series at 11-12 for the best response and before being exposed to HPV. Both vaccines are given in a 3 shot series. The first is given at the initial visit, the second is given 2 months after the first shot, and the third is given 6 months after the first shot. It is very important that all 3 shots are given to fully protect against the HPV types. Both vaccines may not fully protect everyone, they do not protect against diseases caused by other HPV types, and they do not protect against all types of cervical or anal cancers.
Is there a cost for the HPV vaccine?
The average cost for the HPV vaccine itself is approximately $400.00 for all 3 shots. Most health insurance companies that pay for immunizations also pay for the HPV vaccine. The Federal Vaccine for Children (VFC) program covers the cost of the HPV vaccine for males and females under the age of 18 years. You can check with your health insurance provider and your state health department regarding coverage or eligibility. Also, the pharmaceutical companies that make the vaccines offer patient assistance programs for eligible patients. You can contact your health care provider to see if you qualify.