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HPV: Get the facts, learn how to protect yourself

Actor Michael Douglas put human papillomavirus (HPV) in the spotlight this summer when he told a British newspaper that he developed throat cancer years after contracting HPV from a partner.

There has been a sharp increase in throat cancers caused by HPV in recent years. HPV can also lead to cancer of the anus, cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, head and neck.

HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. Here are some facts about this common infection, how you can manage your risk and reduce the chances of HPV progressing to cancer.

What is HPV?

HPV is a common virus that can be passed on through skin-to-skin contact. There are more than 100 types of HPV, with more than 40 types that infect the genital areas. About 90 percent of HPV infections clear up by themselves within two years. Some HPV infections, though, will persist and can cause serious health problems.

How is HPV infection spread?

Sexual contact with an infected partner is the most common way the virus is spread. HPV is passed on mainly through vaginal, anal or oral sex. The virus can also spread by simply touching an infected area.

What diseases result from HPV infection?

Like many other sexually transmitted diseases, there are often no signs or symptoms of HPV infection. For most people, their immune system will clear out the virus without them ever knowing they had it. In some cases, HPV causes genital warts, which grow on the outside or inside of the vagina or on the penis or anus and can spread to nearby skin. Fifteen types of HPV are considered high-risk because, if left untreated, they can lead to cancer of the anus, cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, head and neck.

How common is HPV?

About 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. Every year, about 14 million people are newly infected. HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.

Can HPV infection be prevented?

Two vaccines protect against certain types of HPV. Cervarix® and Gardasil® protect females against HPV types that cause most cervical cancers. Gardasil also protects against most genital warts and has been shown to protect against anal, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Vaccination is recommended as part of the routine immunization schedule for boys and girls aged 11 or 12, with catch-up vaccination recommended for those 13-26 years old. Read more about vaccination to prevent HPV infection.

The chance of infection also can be reduced by limiting the number of sexual partners and using condoms during vaginal, anal or oral sex. Condoms don’t fully protect against an infection because HPV can infect area uncovered by a condom. Women 21-65 years old can decrease their risk of cervical cancer through routine Pap tests.

What screening tests are available for HPV?

Regular screening can identify the early signs of HPV and allow for early treatment before infections can develop into cervical cancer.

For women, the Pap test is considered one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests available. Women are advised to start getting regular Pap tests at age 21. Women who are 30 years old or older can opt to have an HPV test along with their Pap test. Normal results from these tests suggest a very low risk of developing cervical cancer in the few years following the tests.

Other than the Pap test for women, there is no HPV test for men or women to check their overall “HPV status.” Also, there is no approved test to detect HPV in the mouth or throat.

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