HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is a very common virus in the adult population. Experts say about 80% of adults who are sexually active will contract it at some time during their lives. There are about 100 types of HPV; some are introduced through sexual contact.
About a dozen types of HPV that are transmitted through sexual contact are linked to changes in a woman’s cervix. Sometimes, but not always, those changes can lead to cervical cancer if left untreated.
An HPV test can determine if you have the virus and are therefore at increased risk, but only a Pap smear reveals any suspicious cells that could lead to cervical cancer. The danger of untreated HPV is one of the many reasons you should see your gynecologist annually and ensure you’re up to date on all recommended screening tests.
The guidelines of the United States Preventive Services Task Force say that women between the ages of 21 and 65 should have a Pap smear every three years. Alternatively, if you’re between 30 and 65, you can opt for the Pap smear and the HPV test every five years if you want fewer screenings. After age 65, you can forgo these screenings if you’ve had regular prior screenings and aren’t at high risk for cervical cancer.
During the Pap smear, your doctor takes a small sample of cells from your cervix. The sample goes to a lab for analysis, and you normally receive the results in less than two weeks.
It’s not uncommon to have a few abnormal cervical cells at some point in your life. Whenever that’s the case, you’ll have a follow-up Pap smear, usually at around the six-month mark, to ensure that the abnormal cells have cleared up.
If your immune system isn’t compromised, those cells usually resolve without treatment, even if you have the HPV virus. Precancerous cells often take several years to develop into cervical cancer. If you do have a form of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, your chances of developing it are not high.
However, don’t you want reassurance that you’re healthy? Statistics do matter if you’re the one affected by a condition or disease. Pap smears save lives. If precancerous cells are found in your cervix, you’ll have a procedure to have them taken out.
HPV can also spread to the throat through oral sex. Experts at Johns Hopkins say there’s been a dramatic increase in cancer of the throat in recent years; HPV now causes most cases of this cancer. While it’s much more common in men, women are also getting cancer from HPV in the throat.
For pre-teens, there is a new form of HPV prevention — the HPV vaccine. Johns Hopkins experts declare that the vaccine is proven to be safe. It can prevent many, but not all, HPV-related cancers, including cancer of the cervix, anus, vulva/vagina, penis, and throat.
Children who are 11 or 12 and receive the vaccine are completely protected before becoming sexually active and contracting the virus. Anyone between the ages of 9 and 45 can also get the vaccine.
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