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Learn the facts about HPV

Writer / Dr. Michael Moore, otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon at the IU Health Joe & Shelley Schwarz Cancer Center at IU Health North Hospital

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 79 million Americans, mostly in their late teens and early twenties, are infected with HPV. Some types of HPV are low risk, causing mainly genital warts, while others are high-risk and can lead to various types of cancer.

Cervical cancer

Infection with high-risk HPV has been long known to be a risk factor for the development of cervical cancer.  Cervical cancer occurs in the cells of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. Cervical cancer can be caused by various strains of the virus. Symptoms of cervical cancer include heavier and longer menstrual bleeding, bleeding after intercourse and unexplained, persistent pelvic and/or back pain.

Oropharyngeal cancer

HPV can infect the mouth and throat, which can lead to oropharyngeal cancer. Oropharyngeal cancers occur in the back of the throat, usually in the tonsils or the base of the tongue. According the CDC, 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States are caused by HPV.  In fact, the incidence of these cancers has increased dramatically over the past 40 years, making it now the most common HPV-related cancer in the United States. Long-lasting sore throat, earaches, swollen lymph nodes and pain while swallowing are symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer.

When to talk with a doctor

The Head and Neck Cancer Alliance recommends people with a history of tobacco or alcohol use, a history of oral lesions or exposure to radiation therapy, and those with 5 or more sexual partners be screened for HPV. Talk with your doctor if you are showing any symptoms mentioned above. Getting screened is a quick and painless process.

Get vaccinated

Although there is no cure, there is a vaccine that can prevent it. It is recommended for children to be vaccinated around age 9 to 11, but anyone vaccinated through the age of 26 can receive the benefits of the vaccine. According to the American Cancer Society, studies have shown that the vaccine provides close to 100 percent protection again infections and pre-cancers caused by specific types of HPV. To learn more about the HPV vaccine, contact your primary health care provider.

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