The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 14 million people, including teens and young adults, become infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) each year. Fortunately, there’s now a vaccine that can prevent cancers caused by HPV.
What is HPV?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. HPV is a virus that can cause warts on any area of skin or mucous membrane, including the mouth or genital area. HPV can also cause certain types of cancer.
How is HPV transmitted?
Though HPV is classified as an STI, it can be transmitted through any skin-to-skin contact between an infected and non- infected person—not just through sexual contact. A person with HPV can transmit the virus even if they don’t have any symptoms, such as warts.
Besides abstinence, condom use and the HPV vaccine are effective ways to prevent the virus. Keep in mind that condom use does not provide full protection.
What are Genital Warts?
Genital warts are small raised areas of skin on the anus or genitals that can cause itching and irritation. Warts can appear in small groups or in random patterns. Genital warts may also be flat and nearly invisible. Women can even experience them inside the vagina. Warts pass easily from person to person.
How is HPV Treated?
There is no cure for HPV, so treatments focus on getting rid of the symptom: warts. People who think they may have HPV should see a doctor as soon as possible.
Can HPV Cause Cancer?
Yes. If left untreated, some types of HPV can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina and vulva in women; cancer of the penis in men; and cancer of the rectum and throat in both men and women.
Cervical cancer kills more women every year than any other cancer, and two HPV types cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and precancers.
Remember, it takes years for cancer to develop. Regular exams and screenings can help detect genital warts, precancerous changes or cervical cancer in the early stages when treatment is most effective.
What About the HPV Vaccine?
HPV vaccines are a series of two shots for children ages 9 to 14, or three shots for ages 15 and older. The shots are given over six months to protect against HPV infection and the cancers that HPV can cause.
HPV vaccines offer the best protection to preteen girls and boys who receive all doses and have time to develop an immune response before being sexually active.
Current PAMF recommendations for the HPV vaccine is for females ages 9 to 26 and males 11 to 21. A person should receive the HPV series at recommended intervals.
The vaccine, which has been tested with thousands of people over many years, is virtually 100 percent effective and very safe. Most insurance companies pay for the vaccinations.
What Can I Tell My Children?
If you’ve already starting talking with your preteen or teen about their changing body and sexual health, this won’t difficult. You can explain that this vaccine protects men and women from a sexually transmitted disease that is linked to cancer, and that professionals recommend every child get vaccinated before becoming sexually active.
If you haven’t started talking to your child about sex, this is your chance. Begin with stating your values clearly, such as “I expect that you will not have sex until (insert age or context).” Then talk about the importance of knowing how to prevent unwanted pregnancy and STIs with birth control and condoms.
If you think that your 10-year-old daughter or son is too young to hear about sexual intercourse, sexually transmitted infections and condoms, think again. National surveys report that about 7 percent of children have had sexual intercourse before 13 years of age, and about 25 percent of children have had sex by age 15. Make sure to equip your child with the knowledge to protect themselves from becoming a new HPV case.
Reviewed by: Elizabeth W. Lee, M.D.
Last reviewed: August 2019