Nurse Gail Ingram shines the spotlight on a misunderstood virus and provides useful HPV information:
I am thrilled that Michael Douglas and more recently New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito are bringing HPV into the spotlight. The medical community has known for decades that HPV infections cause throat and mouth cancer and have been quietly collecting data and watching trends. Finally folks with enough clout and courage have given it some attention and brought it to the mainstream.
What is HPV? HPV [human papillomavirus] is a virus that is transmitted through sex (oral, genital and anal). Just like a virus that causes a cold, HPV is generally fought off by a strong immune system and clears the body on its own. In some cases, HPV hangs on and can cause cellular changes in the tissue that it infects (example: cervix in women, mouth or throat in men or women, or rectum in men or women). The cellular changes can lead to cancer.
Who gets HPV? To be honest, most people having unprotected sex are probably passing around at least one strain of HPV with no signs or symptoms. The CDC backs me up here and goes even further to say, “This is true even for people who only have sex with one person in their lifetime.” 79 million Americans are infected with HPV and there are 14 million new cases each year. But remember there are many, many strains of HPV and only a couple of them are linked to cancer. Also, the body generally clears HPV on its own and the risk of contracting a cancer-linked strain is rare—especially if you are healthy, don’t smoke or drink, aren’t overly stressed, or are not immunocompromised (with chronic illness, on corticosteroids, or HIV+).
How do I avoid HPV? Kids are getting vaccinated at ages 11 and 12 with a series of two shots. Men and women can get vaccinated up to age 26**. But what about sexually active men and women over 26? As a nurse I will tell them to prevent contact with genital fluids during oral, genital or anal sex. As a nurse I will also tell them to use condoms and dental dams during sexual contact at all times. But when I’m not acting as a clinician, I understand that for many people this is unrealistic advice.
For those who chose not to use condoms or dental dams, staying healthy is the key. Exercise, cut out processed foods and take a Complex-B vitamin to enhance the immune system. Limit stress in your life; do yoga, meditate, spend time in nature. Be as physically strong and mentally healthy as possible. Don’t get run down and do sleep regularly. Stop smoking and limit alcohol intake.
Is there a test for HPV? HPV tests are only available for women to screen for cervical cancer. However a woman can have an unknown HPV infection because it can be acquired and clear on its own between tests. There is no approved test to find HPV in the mouth, throat or rectum.
To learn more about HPV, cervical cancer and Pap guidelines see my previous post: GIRL TALK WITH NURSE GAIL