Human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections among men and women. It’s caused by many types of viruses— up to 14 of which can lead to cervical cancer in women. Although HPV is widely spread, the rate of HPV-caused cervical cancer can be prevented. Read on to learn what everyone needs to know about HPV prevention and sexual health awareness.
HPV Facts: What You Need to Know
HPV is spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. It can be passed between both heterosexual and non-heterosexual partners. Nearly 80% of sexually active women of reproductive age have some type of HPV, but many are unaware they have it. This is because there are often no symptoms.
Some people experience genital warts from HPV (not to be confused with HSV, the herpes simplex virus AKA herpes). Most of the time, an HPV infection clears on its own. The cause of concern with HPV is that several types of HPV viruses result in high-risk cancers, most concernedly cervical cancer.
“Anyone who has sex is exposed to high-risk HPV types. That’s why the vaccine and proper screenings are so important.” - Dr. Miriam Cremer
Listen here for more: Preventing the Most Preventable Cancer with Dr. Miriam Cremer on the Fempower Health Podcast.
Preventing HPV and Cervical Cancer
Fortunately, there is an effective vaccine that prevents many of the dangerous forms of HPV. The best way to prevent HPV is through the available medical opportunities today: the HPV vaccine and adequate screenings.
The CDC states that up to 93% of cervical cancer cases could have been prevented with proper HPV screenings. So why do thousands of women still die every year of this form of cancer? It’s observed that a majority of HPV-cancer deaths are among marginalized populations, women of color, and those who experience inadequate or inaccessible preventative healthcare.
No matter what someone’s socioeconomic background is, there are options. Here are the main tips on how to prevent HPV.
Getting the HPV vaccine early is one of the strongest forms of prevention available. It’s recommended that younger males and females get it before they become sexually active. Many parents choose to schedule their child’s series of HPV vaccinations between ages 9 and 12.
Teens and young adults can still get the vaccines after they’ve become sexually active. Talk with your doctor (or your child’s doctor) about any concerns you might have.
Pap Smear (Pap Tests)
A pap smear test takes a small sample of cells from the cervix to check for abnormalities. Unusual results should be followed up with a slightly more invasive cervical exam called a colposcopy, where a doctor takes a biopsy of cervical tissue to test for cervical cancer. Remember: just because you get an abnormal pap smear result does not mean you officially have cervical cancer.
HPV Screenings and Co-Tests
An HPV test is another important test for women. It screens for the presence of high-risk HPV viruses that lead to cervical cancer. It’s recommended that if you’re 30 or older, you should get a pap smear and an HPV test, called a co-test, every five years.
Safe sex practices, like using condoms and dental dams, can help minimize direct sexual contact that transfers the HPV virus. Another safe sex practice is to communicate with your sexual partners. Ask them about their sexual health screenings or get tested before agreeing to sex.
Accessible Medical Care
More than 28 million people lack health insurance in the United States. With limited access to healthcare comes higher risks of catching life-threatening diseases as they progress.
For basic screenings and preventative care, visit Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs). These provide primary care at more affordable rates, for people with or without insurance. Planned Parenthood is another helpful option for getting HPV screenings and pap smears as recommended.
Screenings for Transgender People
Some transgender men (individuals who were born female and transitioned to live as male) experience difficulty receiving cervical screenings, but they still have the same risks when sexually active. Finding gender-affirming clinics can be helpful, but in some areas, these healthcare providers can be hard to find.