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Understanding HPV: What’s Your Risk?

August 17, 2022

Primary Care Women's Health
 doctor applying a bandaid to patients arm

At some point or another, you’ve probably heard the term “HPV.” But how much do you really know about this common virus? For example, did you know that HPV refers to more than 200 different viruses? Or that nearly all sexually active individuals will contract it? Most startling is that some HPV strains can increase your risk of certain cancers. 

The good news is that with a little preparation and prevention, you can stay healthy and safe from this sexually transmitted infection (STI).

A Riverside expert shares the basics on HPV, including what it is, its symptoms and how you can reduce your risk of contracting HPV.

What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. It is the most common STI. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that in 2018 there were about 43 million HPV infections in the United States.

“You may have had an HPV infection without even realizing,” says a Riverside expert.  “That’s because, most of the time, your immune system fights off the infection before you notice any sign of the virus.”

Whether or not your body can clear HPV on its own largely depends on what type of HPV strain you have. Scientists estimate that there are more than 200 HPV-related viruses, which they classify as either high-risk HPV or low-risk HPV. 

It’s the high-risk HPV infections that can cause several different types of cancer. 

HPV-related cancers include:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Head and neck cancer (usually oropharyngeal cancers)
  • Anal cancer
  • Penile cancer
  • Vaginal cancer
  • Vulvar cancer

How is HPV spread?

HPV can spread through sexual contact with an infected person. That includes vaginal, anal or oral sex. Even skin-to-skin contact during sex with an infected person can spread the virus. It can even be transmitted if you or your partner do not have symptoms. 

“Bottom line, when it comes to HPV – if you’re sexually active, you can and probably will get the virus at some point,” says a Riverside expert. “Practice safe sex and have open and honest conversations about your sexual history with new partners.”

What are the symptoms of HPV?

There typically aren’t any symptoms of an HPV infection. Low-risk HPV infections sometimes cause warts in the mouth or genitals. On the other hand, high-risk HPV infections may not show symptoms until the infection develops into pre-cancer or cancer. 

“Most HPV-related cancers are slow growing,” says a Riverside expert. “That’s why screenings like a cervical exam and your annual wellness visit with your primary care provider are key to identifying signs of cancer early and preventing it from spreading.”

Can HPV be prevented?

The best news is that you can prevent getting an HPV infection. Here are a few things you can do to lower your risk of getting an HPV infection.

  • Get vaccinated. The CDC recommends that everyone under age 26 receives the HPV vaccine. In fact, they recommend it for children during their 11- or 12-year-old wellness check.
  • Schedule regular cervical cancer screenings. The Pap test or HPV test can identify HPV infections before they turn into cancer. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) share the following recommendations for cervical cancer screenings:
    • Women ages 21 to 29: Pap test every three years
      • Women ages 25 to 29 can opt for an HPV test, but Pap tests are preferred
    • Women ages 30 to 65 can opt for any of the following:
      • A Pap test and HPV test every five years
      • A Pap test every three years
      • HPV test every five years
  • Always use a condom. Men get and spread HPV, too. The CDC found that 74% of oropharynx (throat), penis and anus cancers in men likely developed from an HPV infection. Condoms help reduce your risk of all STIs, including HPV.
  • Be in a monogamous relationship. Have only one sexual partner at a time. Be open and honest with your partner about your sexual history.

If you have questions or concerns about HPV infections, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. 

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