What You Need to Know About HPV

What is HPV?

HPV (Human Papillomavirus) is a sexually transmitted infection that causes oral and anogenital disease in both males and females, including some types of cancer.   In particular, it is responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer in women and is the most common cause of anogenital warts.  There are several subtypes of the HPV virus, some of which are more likely to cause cancer than others.

What are the signs and symptoms of HPV infection?

Most patients with HPV are unaware they have been infected with the virus.  In fact, in 90 percent of cases, the immune system is able to clear the infection.   In individuals who have been exposed to HPV, there is no way to know who will develop HPV-associated health problems.  Some individuals infected with HPV develop warts in the genital region that may be raised or flat, occur alone or in groups, and may resemble a cauliflower.  These warts do not progress to cancer.   Other individuals with persistent HPV infection, however, are at risk for cancer – most commonly cervical cancer in women.   Less common cancers of the anogenital region and throat can develop as well.  It is important to note that vaccination against HPV does not completely prevent cervical cancer, so routine screening at your primary care provider’s office is recommended.

Why is vaccination important?

HPV is easily transmitted from one individual to another via sexual contact.  This is why vaccination against the virus is ideally performed prior to the onset of sexual activity.  Vaccination against certain subtypes of the HPV virus can significantly reduce the risk of oral and anogenital cancer and warts.  There are currently two vaccines available in the U.S.  – Gardasil and Cervarix – both of which target high risk subtypes of the HPV virus.  Gardasil also targets two additional subtypes which are linked to anogenital warts.

Who needs vaccinated?

The HPV vaccine is recommended in all preteen females and males beginning at age 11 or 12.  If vaccine administration is missed at these ages, it can still be given up to age 26 in both males and females, regardless of sexual activity or prior HPV exposure.  There are also special populations who may benefit from the vaccine, such as individuals with weakened immune systems.  Both vaccines are administered in a three dose series over six months, and most patients receive them at their primary care physician’s office.   Your primary care physician can help you decide which vaccine is appropriate for you or your child.

Are there side effects to the vaccine?

The vaccine is generally very well tolerated.  Pain at the injection site is the most common reaction.  Serious side effects are very rare.

Where can I find more information regarding HPV and the vaccine?

Your primary care physician can provide you with information regarding HPV and the available vaccines.

Call 765.741.1073 to register for a free cervical and breast cancer screening on September 4, 6 pm – 8 pm at the Indiana University Health Ball Memorial Family Practice Center. 

Luke Ernstberger, II is a physician and Associate Director at IU Health Ball Memorial Physicians Family Medicine Residency.  For more information, please visit iuhealth.org/ball-memorial.

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