Human Papillomavirus (HPV) screening
HPV stands for human papilloma virus. A virus is a tiny organism that must live in another cell to survive. Once inside, the virus “hijacks” the cell to make more viruses.
Why should I be tested for HPV?
There are more than 150 types of HPV, each indicated by a number. We screen for certain types of HPV on a pap smear because they can get into the cells of your cervix and cause changes that can eventually become cancer. The goal of a pap is to catch the HPV virus and changes of your cervix and to remove bad cells before they progress to cancer. Sometimes your body clears the HPV virus and cures the cells that have started to become abnormal. If you have HPV and have questions, come and see us so we can discuss whether you should be followed or treated with your current diagnosis.
High Risk HPV are the types most likely to progress to cancer. These most high risk of there are 16,18 and 45. If you have one of these, we will suggest a colposcopy, even if the cells on your pap are still normal.
When should I be tested for HPV?
Women who have had sex should have their first pap at age 21. If the cells on the pap are normal, the American College of OB/GYN does not recommend testing for the HPV virus. If the cells are abnormal, then an HPV test will be done. Women from age 30 to 65 should have an HPV test with their pap. The results of your pap and HPV testing will determine when you should be tested again.
HPV and Warts
Some types of HPV cause warts, so looking at the vulva (labia majora) and surrounding area is also part of HPV screening. The HPV types that cause warts rarely cause cancer and are called low risk HPV. The lesions they form are described as cauliflower shaped. HPV 6 and 11 are common low risk HPV types. (LINK TO GENITAL WARTS)
Genital warts often look like small cauliflower or mushroomy growths. They can be raised or flat and any size. They are caused by an HPV infection and may appear as soon as a couple of weeks after exposure or a few months. It is rare for them to show up for the first time years after the exposure. If you see genital warts on your partner, avoid contact with that area until your partner has been treated and the warts are gone.
How does HPV spread?
HPV is spread skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral, or anal sexual activity. It can be spread even when an infected person has no visible signs or symptoms.
Anyone who has had sexual contact can get HPV, even if it was only with only one person, but infections are more likely in people who have had many sex partners.
The virus can also be spread by genital contact without sex, but this is not common. Oral-genital and hand-genital spread of some genital HPV types have been reported.
You DO NOT get HPV from:
- Toilet seats
- Hugging or holding hands
- Swimming in pools or hot tubs
- Sharing food or utensils
- Being unclean
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that about 79 million people are currently infected with HPV in the United States, and about 14 million people in the US get a new HPV infection every year.
How do I protect myself from HPV?
There is no test for men to see if they have a genital infection of HPV. You can see warts, which is one type of HPV, but the types that cause cancer do not cause warts. Still, before entering into a sexual relationship or a relationship where sexual organs are in contact, ask if any of his previous partners have had HPV, had a procedure on their cervix or seem to go to the gynecologist frequently.
Make sure that you have the HPV vaccine. It is now covered by insurance until your mid-40’s. The vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV and is not a guarantee that you will not get infected. It will help your body fight HPV if you are exposed.
HPV is very common, so the only way to keep from becoming infected may be to completely avoid any contact of the areas of your body that can become infected (like the mouth, anus, and genitals) with those of another person. This means not having vaginal, oral, or anal sex, but it also means not allowing those areas to come in contact with someone else’s skin.
Limiting the number of sexual partners will limit your risk. Try to avoid having sex with people who have had multiple partners as they are at a higher risk of having been exposed to HPV. However, someone with only one previous sexual partner can have HPV.
Condoms can help protect you from HPV. Make sure the condom is on before entry into the vagina. The HPV might be on skin not covered by the condom. HPV might spread before the condom is put on.