HPV is a virus (human papillomavirus) that is most often contracted by sexual contact in one form or another. It is very common and there are many strains. At least 13 HPV strains have the potential to turn into cancer.
Nearly all adults will acquire HPV at some point in their lifetime. Every year in the United States, 14 million new infections occur. Most people will clear the infection within a two-year period without symptoms. However, every year in the U.S., approximately 35,000 people with HPV will get a cancer diagnosis.
HPV causes 5% of all cancer cases worldwide. Almost all cervical and anal cancers are caused by HPV. Many cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, and oropharynx — back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils — are also caused by HPV.
Most people think HPV only affects women, but throat cancer in men is actually the most common cancer from HPV infection. It recently surpassed cervical cancer diagnoses.
What You Can Do
The most common method of prevention is the HPV vaccine. The vaccine is recommended for all children and is best to give around the ages of 9-12 when the immune system is strong. However, new research shows the vaccine has benefits up to age 45. Talk to your doctor to understand this choice.
Other ways to protect yourself include abstinence and practicing safe sex by using a condom to reduce the chances of infection. However, condoms are not 100% effective as any areas left exposed are still vulnerable to HPV transmission.
For women, it’s important to have a Pap smear screening annually. If you’ve ever had an abnormal Pap test result, that is usually HPV. So, it’s important to consult with a doctor about continued annual screenings.
If you have or had an HPV infection — and even if it cleared — you still want to keep your immune system at its best. Some doctors recommend taking folic acid, Vitamin B, and also checking your vitamin D level, as many people have low levels.
Can the HPV vaccine be given at older ages?
Yes. The vaccine can be given to adults between the ages of 27 and 45 who didn’t receive all of the doses earlier in life. Adults in this age group benefit less from the vaccine because they are more likely to have been exposed to HPV already. But if you are concerned that you are at risk for new HPV infections, you should talk with your health care provider about whether the vaccine may be right for you.
What does it mean if a woman has a positive HPV test after many years of negative tests?
Sometimes, even after several negative HPV tests, a woman can still have a positive HPV test result. This is not necessarily a sign of a new HPV infection, and it doesn’t always mean she or her partner has a new sexual partner. In certain cases, an HPV infection can become active again after many years.
Other viruses behave this way, as well. For example, the chickenpox virus can reactivate later in life to cause shingles. There is no way to tell whether a newly positive HPV test result is a sign of a new infection or a reactivation of an old infection. Researchers don’t know whether a reactivated HPV infection has the same risk of causing pre-cancer or cancer as a new HPV infection.
You can have HPV even if:
- It has been years since you were sexually active
- You had one, or very few partners in your life
- You do not have any signs or symptoms
You cannot get HPV from:
- Toilet seats
- Hugging or holding hands
- Swimming pools or hot tubs
- Sharing food or utensils
- Being unclean
For more information, please reference the sites below. We use these sites for our sources of general information.
You can also listen to our researcher, Dr. Ellis Reinherz from Dana Farber, to learn more about HPV.
To find out more about our SU2C/FFF research team, click here.
For the Facts on HPV, please click https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm