Nearly 80 million Americans are currently infected with some type of human papillomavirus (HPV), and many of them don’t even know it. Each year, an estimated 14 million Americans become newly infected. This is especially important, as certain strains have been linked to increased risk for cancer, including cervical cancer.
Here are more facts about HPV that you might not know.
There are many types of HPV.
There are more than 100 types of HPV, and about 40 of those can be spread through direct sexual contact to the genital area as well as the mouth and throat. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States, and it has been associated with cancer and genital warts.
Different strains of HPV cause different types of cancer.
Of the 100 strains of HPV, 12 have been identified as high risk for causing cancer in some people. HPV 16 and 18 are believed to cause about 70% of cervical cancers, and five other strains are linked to another 20% of cervical cancers.
Some physicians offer an HPV test with a routine Pap test. The Pap test identifies abnormal cells in the cervix, and the HPV test identifies high-risk strains of HPV in the cervix that can lead to cancer.
But while HPV is most commonly associated with cervical cancer, high-risk strains of HPV can lead to other types of cancer in both men and women, including cancers in the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, rectum and oropharynx (throat). There is currently no screening available to detect HPV that leads to those cancers.
HPV is causing a rapid rise in oropharyngeal cancer.
Sandeep Samant, MD, chief of Head and Neck Surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, has noted a startling rise in oropharyngeal cancers treated at the Northwestern Medicine Head and Neck Multidisciplinary Clinic. While these cancers can sometimes be attributed to tobacco or alcohol use, it is estimated that 70% of these cancers are caused by HPV.
Oropharyngeal cancer affects the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 3,200 new cases of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed in women and about 15,500 are diagnosed in men each year in the United States.
HPV is a virus, and your body fights it like any virus.
Many people become infected with HPV and never develop symptoms or illness because their body is able to fight off the virus. However, in a minority of individuals, the virus may persist for many years in areas such as tonsil cells. In those cases, HPV can lead to the formation of cancer 10 to 15 years after the initial infection.
The HPV vaccine is not just for children.
The HPV vaccine has been shown to be highly effective in protecting people against cervical pre-cancers and genital warts, as well as oropharyngeal and anal cancer caused by HPV. Experts recommend vaccination for boys and girls around age 11 or 12, and everyone through age 26 years.
If you are between the ages of 26 and 45, discuss your risks with your physician to see if the HPV vaccine is appropriate for you.
A few types of HPV vaccine are now offered that help protect individuals from many of the strains of HPV most commonly associated with cancer. However, no vaccine has been developed that protects against all of the high-risk strains of HPV.