Chances are you’ve heard of HPV, but may we wondering what it is. HPV stands for Human Papilloma Virus. 

HPV stands for Human Papilloma Virus, which has over 100 different subtypes. HPV is spread from skin to skin contact.  Some types of HPV can cause warts on the skin, others can infect other parts of the body.

While the vast majority of HPV does not cause serious risks, there are a few high-risk subtypes that can infect a woman’s cervix from intimate contact with a partner. 

How common is HPV?

  • There are 14 million new HPV infections each year in the US
  • Over 79 million people have been exposed to HPV, which makes it the most common sexually transmitted infection
  • It’s estimated that > 80% of women under 50 have been exposed to HPV, so it’s normal to be exposed to HPV
  • Most HPV infections, even the high risk types will NOT progress to cancer and be cleared by the body’s own immune system without treatment in 2 to 3 years
  • Cervical cancer is rare and does NOT happen over night. It takes 5-10 years to develop
  • Most cancers from HPV are caused by types 16, 18 and 45

HPV and the risk of cancer

Rarely, and let me emphasize the word, “rarely” does an HPV infection lead to cervical cancer.

It’s important to know that while 90% of women who have been exposed to HPV will clear the virus over 2-3 years, a few women will have atypical or abnormal pap smears from their HPV infection.

This is because the HPV virus will infect the cells of the cervix causing changes that are seen in the Pap smear. Most of these changes can be monitored and evaluated every year. Some will need to be treated.

Can HPV cause Genital Warts?

  • Low-risk types of HPV can lead to small growths or bumps on the genitals that may itch or hurt
  • Genital warts do not typically progress to cancer
  • Warts on any part of the skin, including the genitals may go away on their own in 2 to 3 years without treatment
  • Many people prefer to treat their warts rather than wait years for them to go away
  • Treatments can last weeks to months
  • 90% of genital warts are caused by HPV types 6 & 11

What about HPV of the Cervix?

  • There are no outward signs or symptoms of an HPV infection of the cervix
  • Pap smears are still the best way to detect any changes in the cervical cells caused by high-risk HPV
  • Most HPV, even high-risk types of the cervix will NOT progress to cancer
  • High-risk HPV types 16 and 18 account for 70% of all cervical cancers
  • High-risk HPV types 31 and 45 account for 10% of all cervical cancers
  • Cervical Cancer takes many years, sometimes decades to develop, which is why regular Pap smears are so important

Are there tests for HPV? 

  • There are highly accurate tests that can be done at the same time as a Pap smears to check for high-risk types of HPV
  • Pap smears are still the best way to evaluate the cervix for any pre-cancerous or cancerous changes in the cells
  • New tests for E6 and E7, which are RNA tests, look for highly oncogenic (cancer-causing) proteins within high-risk HPV infections are now available with Pap smears
  • These help health care providers identify more accurately which high-risk HPV infections are more likely to progress to cancer and need to be evaluated more often

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