If you receive a diagnosis of high-risk HPV, you might understandably be alarmed. While HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, only high-risk strains increase the risk of certain cancers.
It should ease your mind to know that in most cases, the human immune system does a good job of clearing the virus over the course of a year or two.
Board-certified OB/GYN Dr. Sharon Breit, and our team of advanced practice registered nurses at the Center for Women’s Health in Wichita, Kansas, want you to feel comfortable asking questions and sharing concerns about HPV.
It’s perfectly normal to be anxious after receiving a high-risk HPV diagnosis. In this post, we address some concerns you may have about high-risk HPV.
What is high-risk HPV?
There are over 200 types of HPV, and about 13 of them are considered high-risk because they can trigger changes in your body that lead to certain cancers. Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-related cancer in women, while throat cancer is the most common HPV-related cancer in men.
At least 90% of cervical cancer cases are estimated to be HPV-related. Two strains — HPV 16 and 18 — are responsible for an estimated 70% of cases.
HPV can also cause vulvar cancer in women, penile cancer in men, and cancer of the anus in men and women.
How do you diagnose high-risk HPV?
Most people with high-risk HPV are unaware that they have it unless they’re screened. HPV doesn’t usually cause symptoms. Certain strains of HPV — 6 and 11 — cause genital warts.
For women, we use a Pap smear to check for abnormal changes to cervical cells. If this test comes back abnormal, we may do additional testing to look for the presence of high-risk strains of HPV. If we detect such a strain, we diagnose high-risk HPV.
There’s no approved test for HPV in men.
Will I develop cervical cancer if I have high-risk HPV?
Precancerous and cancerous changes to cervical cells happen slowly. As long as you get regular Pap smears and Dr. Breit monitors your situation, your risk of cervical cancer is low.
If Dr. Breit detects anything abnormal, she may perform a biopsy, and the result determines what happens next.
If you test positive for high-risk HPV, Dr. Breit recommends a screening schedule. Regular screening is crucial to detect and treat any abnormal lesions that may develop that have a risk of becoming cancer.
Why don’t some HPV infections go away?
Your immune system often does an excellent job of eliminating pathogens such as viruses. In 90% of cases, the immune system successfully eliminates HPV. But the body’s ability to defeat the virus is unpredictable. Vaccination helps to protect against HPV.
HPV vaccination recommendations
Because HPV affects both females and males, Dr. Breit recommends that both get vaccinated, and the earlier the better. It’s recommended that children and adults ages 9-26 get vaccinated against HPV.
Getting immunized before becoming sexually active is the best way to prevent HPV. Almost all unvaccinated sexually active people will become infected with HPV at some point. The goal is to protect against HPV before you’re exposed.
Beginning the HPV vaccine series early, allows children to receive their HPV immunization before or at the same time as other vaccines.
Protection lasts more than 10 years after immunization.
A positive HPV test can be a surprise, but understanding the facts can help you feel empowered and in control.
If you have questions or concerns about high-risk HPV, schedule a visit with our Center for Women’s Health team by calling our Wichita, Kansas, office or requesting an appointment online. We’re here to support you in the best way forward.