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Living Well

How Much Do You Know about HPV?

Last updated: Sep 19, 2016

It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection
in the United States and causes cancer,
but what do you really know about
HPV, the human papillomavirus?

Two Summit Medical Group obstetrician/gynecologists are eager to get the word out about how people can protect themselves against HPV through regular Pap tests for women and vaccination for children and young adults of both sexes.

“We talk a lot about chlamydia and gonorrhea and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). Unfortunately, we’re not talking a lot about HPV,” says obstetrician/gynecologist Kara J. Goldman, MD, FACOG.

Men are most often asymptomatic if they have an HPV infection, and they usually only find out about an infection after a partner has tested positive and informed them. Women, on the other hand, may have symptoms including genital warts.

HPV-Caused Cancers Affect Men and Women

“HPV causes cancers and precancerous lesions in both men and women, including cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile and oropharyngeal cancer,” notes Darlene G. Gibbon, MD, FACOG, a gynecological oncologist.

The rate of cervical cancer is lower in the United States than in much of the world, explains Dr. Goldman, but that doesn’t mean people can give up the fight against HPV.

Vaccinations Crucial for Both Sexes

 “We have the ability to decrease the incidence of these cancers by vaccinating children and young adults prior to their being exposed to the HPV virus,” notes Dr. Gibbon. “It is critical that we vaccinate both boys and girls to help prevent them from having to deal with a devastating cancer diagnosis.”

The majority of those exposed to the virus successfully fend it off and don’t develop cancer, but not everyone is so lucky, Dr. Gibbon explains. “HPV does not discriminate against age, race, rich or poor, men or women,” she adds.

“I do see some parental reluctance to the vaccine,” says Dr. Goldman, “but with good education about HPV and the vaccine, the vast majority of my patients do get vaccinated,” notes Dr. Goldman. “Once the parents and children understand the association between HPV and cervical cancer they are almost always on board with vaccination.” (See Childhood Vaccines: What Parents Need to Know.” )

Vaccine May Be Given Up to Age 27

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children receive three doses of the HPV vaccine by the time they become sexually active.

The vaccines are generally recommended for children age 11 to 12,
but what if you’ve reached adulthood and haven’t yet received them?
You may be eligible to receive the series of vaccinations up until 27 years of age.

Most insurance carriers and plans will cover the cost of these vaccinations, but be sure to contact your provider to find out.

Timetable for Pap Tests

Pap tests, the most common form of cervical cancer screening, are done as part of women’s gynecological care.

The timing has changed over the years, but Summit Medical Group OB/GYNS recommend this schedule, based on American Cancer Society and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines:

  • A woman should have her first Pap test when she is 21.
  • A pap smear, the screening test for cervical cancer, should be done every three years in women ages 21 to 29.
  • After age 30, women need to have the pap smear only every three to five years, but co-testing a pap smear along with a specialized HPV test is suggested.
  • All patients should have an annual gynecological exam—including a visual inspection of the cervix—and a pelvic exam yearly (advised by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists).
  • There are a few different screening algorithms for cervical cancer. The ideal option is a Pap test with an HPV test every 5 years. An alternate approach is a screening pap every 3 years.

Depending on how the results come back, women may need additional testing or more frequent screening. If testing is normal they may continue on the same pap test schedule.