What is HPV?
The most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, human papillomavirus (HPV) is a strange kind of pathogen. “While your risk of contracting it is high, it’s likely you won’t even know you’re infected,” says Dr. Marcus Wagner, a radiation oncologist with Tennessee Oncology at CHI Memorial Hospital. And while it often clears up on its own within two to three years, it doesn’t always.
According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 150 virus strains can be categorized as HPV. Around 40 of those strains can infect the genital area and are transmitted through direct sexual activity or intimate skin-to-skin contact. “They are so common that most sexually-active men and women will be infected at some point in their lives,” says Dr. Lara Rabaa, a pediatrician with Tennova Primary Care. Statistics show likely 1 in 5 Americans has an active HPV infection right now. The scary part? “Persistent HPV infection can lead to not only anogenital warts, but also serious cancers in both men and women,” says Dr. Zara Memon, a pediatrician with the Chattanooga Children’s Clinic. In fact, HPV is responsible for virtually all cases of cervical cancer and anal cancer, and approximately 75% of vaginal cancers, 70% of oropharyngeal (throat) cancers, 50% of vulvar cancers, and 35% of penile cancers. Each year in the US, approximately 20,000 women and 11,000 men are diagnosed with cancers caused by HPV infections.
Specialists separate HPV into two different categories:
Low Risk (non-oncogenic) HPV
Can cause genital warts and (rarely) laryngeal papillomas (growths on the throat); and benign or low-grade cervical cell abnormalities
High Risk (oncogenic) HPV
Can cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvular cancers in women; penile cancers in men; and oropharyngeal (throat) and anal cancers in both men and women