Genital human papilloma virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). In fact, it’s spread through direct skin to skin contact, so most people have been exposed to it once they become sexually active. It’s the same virus that leads to a wart, but if it is spread through sexual contact, it’s also the virus that can lead to cervical cancer. We now have a vaccine to protect against the strains of genital HPV that are most likely to cause cancer, but parents and teens should be aware of the impact HPV can have.
My co-author, Jen Brown, posted on the HPV vaccine a while back, so I won’t duplicate that information. This post can give a bit more background about the infection and tell why parents should be aware of it.
There are over 40 different types of genital HPV and the infection typically has no symptoms at all. For most people who get HPV, their body’s immune system will fight off the infection and get rid of it completely. However, some strains of the virus are more likely to cause problems including cervical, anal, penile, or throat cancer and genital warts. Teens and parents should know it is important to talk with your health care provider about all sexual practices.
In some people, infection with HPV can cause genital warts. Often the warts themselves are not painful, but they can become irritated (rubbing on clothing) or get in the way during sex or using the bathroom. People with genital warts may be embarrassed by them as well. Warts can be removed by a health care provider using methods including freezing, but removal is uncomfortable.
HPV can lead to changes on a woman’s cervix (the lower portion of the uterus) that can develop into cancer. If these cellular changes on the cervix are caught before cancer develops, they can be removed. This actually prevents a person from developing cervical cancer! This is why it is so important for women ages 21 and older to get routine cervical cancer screening via pap smears, as recommended by their primary care provider or gynecologist. During a pap smear, a small sample of cervical cells is collected and examined for per-cancerous changes. Pap smears are not recommended for teens anymore because most teens will be infected with HPV if they start having sex, but their bodies typically clear the infection.
For men who have sex with men or women who have anal sex, screening for cancerous changes in the cells of the anus and rectum can help with early diagnosis or prevention of cancer. The screening uses the same laboratory test as a pap smear.
The HPV vaccine does not protect against all of the strains of the virus, however it does protect against the most common strains that lead to warts and cervical cancer.
As I stated earlier, HPV is spread through skin to skin contact. Most people don’t have symptoms of infection as all, so the virus can be spread even if a person is unaware they have the infection. Condoms can help prevent the spread, but a condom doesn’t cover all the skin that is exposed during sex.
So what are the important things for parents to know about HPV?
- HPV is common. The only way to prevent HPV 100% is to not have sex at all, but most people will have sex at some point in their lives and get exposed to the virus.
- Screening for cervical cancer and per-cancerous changes is very important because early detection can actually prevent cancer.
- HPV vaccine protects against complications from HPV infection, such as cervical, anal, penile, and oral/throat cancer as well as genital warts
- Condoms can help prevent the spread of HPV
- Parents should talk with their teens about their views on sex and relationships. Tell your teen expectations about behavior and have open conversations about relationships and sexuality. If you are uncomfortable tackling this topic, ask your teen’s health care provider for information or to bring this up at their next visit.