More American adults become infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) than any other sexually transmitted infection. According to a 2020 analytical report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 42 million Americans live with HPV. In addition, an estimated 13 million infected people contracted HPV in 2020, the same year of the CDC analysis.
Some strains of HPV can cause certain types of cancers if undiagnosed and untreated for too long, such as cervical cancer. However, since most HPV-infected people don’t experience any symptoms, they don’t bother going to the doctor for an HPV test or pap smear to see if they are infected. Instead, they go on without ever knowing they have HPV.
Potential Symptoms of High-Risk HPV Infections
Most HPV strains cause no symptoms and do not lead to cancer. On the other hand, some low-risk HPV strains may cause you to develop warts on certain parts of your body, such as your genitals. These are not usually cancerous HPV strains but can still cause genital warts to develop through sexual transmission.
You will know when you have warts because they will appear as small, flat lesions on your skin which resemble little cauliflower-shaped bumps. Sometimes warts may also grow on other places like your feet and hands without having sex. It depends on how and where you have intimate skin-to-skin contact with an infected person.
Genital warts don’t usually lead to cancer. In fact, some HPV strains that don’t cause symptoms are the ones you must worry about the most because high-risk HPV strains can still cause cervical cancer even if you don’t have any initial symptoms. These strains may cause cancer in your throat, anus, vagina, vulva, penis, or cervix.
For this reason, you must get tested for HPV and cervical cancer regularly. Talk with your doctor for more guidance on how often you should get tested. And, of course, practice safe sex and take other precautions to prevent yourself from contracting or spreading HPV.
Most Dangerous HPV Strains
The HPV strains you must worry about the most are HPV 16 and 18 because they are known for causing cancer. As for the wart-causing HPV strains, look out for HPV 6 and 11. They are non-cancerous HPV strains but can still cause you to develop annoying genital warts.
Fortunately, most HPV-infected people’s immune systems are strong enough to eradicate their HPV infections after about two years. But the cancer risk increases significantly if the HPV infection lasts longer than two years.
Getting Tested for HPV is Critical
A high-risk HPV infection won’t cause cancer right away. Cervical cancer can take several years to develop in an HPV-infected woman. That is why sexually active women must get a pap test done frequently, especially if they already know they have an HPV infection.
A Pap test (or pap smear) evaluates the cervical cells to see if they are cancerous or precancerous. The test won’t indicate whether you have an HPV infection, so you should take a separate HPV test if you still don’t know whether you are infected. Try to take your pap test and HPV test around the same time.
The United States Preventative Services Taskforce recommends women aged 21 to 29 get a pap test every three years minimum. Women aged 30 to 65 without HPV should get a pap test and HPV test every five years. However, if you already have HPV, talk to your doctor about how often you should get a pap test. They will probably recommend you get tested more frequently than every three years, such as every year.
HPV Treatment and Protection
HPV has no cure. But if your pap test results indicate abnormal cervical cellular growth, your primary care physician can treat you to slow down the growth and help prevent it from becoming cancerous. And if you have genital warts, topical medications are also available to slow their growth.
Preventative treatment is the best protection against HPV. People between the ages of 11 and 26 should get the HPV vaccine as soon as possible, preferably at 11 or 12 before their sexually active years. That way, they will have protection against HPV if they happen to contract it in their later years. Anyone ages 27 to 45 who has not been vaccinated yet should talk to their doctor about whether the vaccine is right for them.
It’s also critical that you build your immune system with a healthy diet, include supplements that are proven to boost your immunity such as AHCC, plenty of sleep, reducing your stress levels, and exercise regularly.