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HPV: It’s Not Just About Your Cervix

Via Everyday Health:

Lauren Streicher, MD: The news that Michael Douglas may have HPV-related throat cancer from engaging in oral sex is going to make a lot of people more than a little nervous. Most women are very aware that the human papillomavirus (HPV), is responsible for cervical cancer, but not everyone is aware that this common sexually transmitted virus is also the culprit behind vulvar, vaginal, anal, bladder and, as in the news today, some throat, oral, head and neck cancers.

Before you go into major panic mode or ask your gynecologist to look in your throat, be aware that most HPV infections clear, have no consequences, and require no treatment.

HPV isn’t new; evidence suggests ancient Greeks and Romans also suffered from problems related to HPV. There are 100 types of human papillomavirus (HPV), most of which are harmless. It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection there is, and there are 20 million documented cases of HPV in the United States each year, but the numbers are likely much higher since many people who have HPV have no symptoms and don’t know they have it. The highest prevalence of HPV is among women ages 20 to 24, but the consequences of HPV are not limited to the young, as Michael Douglas can attest.

A study in the Journal of Infectious Disease included women up to the age of 85 and found that new infections continued in every age group. In addition, the consequences of HPV are usually not apparent until years after exposure. Currently, 80 percent of women (and men) will have been exposed to HPV by the time they are 60. So, no matter how old you are, even if you’re an 85-year-old great-grandma, you may be at risk.

Your best bet to keep from acquiring HPV is to use a condom, including during oral sex. Smoking is also a major risk factor associated with all HPV cancers, including throat and oral cancers. (As if you needed another reason to quit!)

And if you expect to be exposed to new partners, consider getting an HPV vaccine. Strictly speaking, the HPV vaccine is only intended to immunize children and young adults up to age 26 against the most common cancer-causing HPV, types 16 and 18. It is not FDA approved for people over the age of 26, and it is not approved for prevention of oral, head and neck cancer. But it stands to reason it would reduce risk since HPV type 16, which causes many genital cancers, is also the type responsible for most HPV-related throat cancers.

So yes, vaccinate your daughters, and vaccinate your sons. And if you are an adult who is concerned, consider getting vaccinated yourself. But keep in mind, in addition to sticking out your arm, you will need to stick out your checkbook since insurance won’t cover the cost of the vaccine. And don’t expect your gynecologist to look in your throat any more than you would expect your throat doctor to look in your vagina.

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