By Jenny Everett, SELF magazine
As you've probably heard, the human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact that can, in some cases, cause cancer.
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But here's what you may not have heard: Most strains don't cause cancer and, if you're properly screened (via regular pap smears) and get the vaccine if you're under 26, you can almost completely wipe out your cervical cancer risk.
And what if you're over age 26 -- can you still get the vaccine? We talked to Paula Hillard, MD, Chief of the Division of Gynecologic Specialties at the Stanford University School of Medicine, to find out the answer -- plus four more things you need to know about HPV.
1. There's a good chance you've been exposed. According to Hillard, by age 50, 80 percent of women have been exposed. Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, and another 6 million are infected each year.
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2. Not all HPV strains are alike. There are 40 different types of HPV that can infect the mouth, throat and genitals -- up to 90 percent of cervical cancers are caused by two strains (HPV 16 and HPV 18). Though some strains cause genital warts, most people who get infected with HPV never even know it -- and the infection often goes away on its own within a year or two.
3. Cervical cancer is almost entirely preventable. The key, according to Hillard, is to get the vaccine if you're under 26 and get your pap yearly (if you're over 30 and have had normal paps up until now, you can talk to your doc about going a bit longer between screenings). About half of patients diagnosed with cervical cancer have never had a pap, and an additional 10-plus percent have not had a pap in the last five years.
4. You can get the vaccine if you're older than 26. You just have to pay for it, because the FDA has only approved it for the younger group. Why? It's unclear, according to Hillard. The FDA simply states that "data are insufficient to establish effectiveness of Gardasil in women 27-45 years of age." Talk to your doctor to determine if you're a good candidate, especially if you're single, unmarried or not in a monogamous relationship.
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5. It may cause other cancers, too. New studies are suggesting an increase in head and neck cancers related to HPV. It's also been linked to vulvar cancer, vaginal cancer, penile cancer and anal cancer.
For the record, January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Why wait? Make your pap appointment now!
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Photo Credit: WWD