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7 things you should know about HPV

Posted on Oct. 3, 2014 ( comments)

Human papillomavirus

Doctors today commonly recommend several immunizations for children when they reach age 11 or 12.

In addition to flu, tetanus and meningitis shots, the typical regimen includes an HPV immunization.

HPV, the human papillomavirus, refers to a very common family of more than 100 viruses that infect millions of Americans. Some strains can cause serious health problems, including genital warts and cancer.

Fortunately, there’s a lot we know about HPV, the problems it can cause and the best way to avoid becoming infected.

Here are some of the basics things you should know to protect yourself and your children.

1. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), HPV is extremely common. In fact, nearly all sexually active American men and women will contract an HPV infection during their lifetime. Approximately 79 million Americans have HPV; 14 million more become infected every year.

2. Almost all cervical cancers are linked to HPV

In most cases, an HPV infection simply goes away without causing problems. When infection from certain strains persists, however, it can cause genital warts and cancer of the cervix, vulva, mouth or throat.

In the United States, about 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year and approximately 4,000 women die from it. Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are related to HPV infection.

3. Men can get HPV-related cancers, too

Each year, about 7,000 American men develop HPV-associated cancers of the penis, anus, mouth or throat.

4. HPV is spread by sexual contact

The most common way of getting HPV is by having vaginal or anal sex with an infected partner.

However, you can also contract it through oral sex or just skin-to-skin contact with areas of a partner’s body that are infected by HPV.

If you’re sexually active you can get HPV, even if you only have sex with one person.

It can take years for symptoms to develop, which makes it hard to know when you contracted the virus.

5. People who have HPV don’t always know they’re infected

It’s possible to have HPV, not know it, and spread the infection to another person without realizing it.

6. There is no cure for HPV

The conditions caused by HPV can be treated, but HPV itself cannot be cured.

For example, some HPV strains cause genital warts, which your medical provider can treat. (Left untreated, the warts may worsen or simply go away.) Other strains may cause cervical cancer. 

The best defense against HPV-related cancer is early detection and treatment. It’s recommended that women age 30 and older receive screening PAP tests and follow-up immediately if their test results are abnormal.

7. The best way to avoid HPV is to get vaccinated

HPV vaccines are safe and effective and provide protection against the HPV strain that cause genital warts and cancer.

The immunization is given in three shots over six months — all three doses are necessary for full protection.

The CDC recommends all boys and girls age 11 to 12 be vaccinated. Catch-up vaccinations are recommended for males up to age 21 and females through age 26, if they did not get vaccinated when they were younger.

In addition, the vaccine is recommended for gay and bisexual men (or any man who has sex with a man) through age 26.

It is also recommended for men and women with compromised immune systems (including people living with HIV/AIDS) through age 26, if they did not get fully vaccinated when they were younger.

The HPV vaccine is free in the state of Washington for children up to age 18. It can be obtained through the MultiCare Mary Bridge Mobile Immunization Clinic.

Related story

Read more about children and immunizations in our story, 7 common questions about immunizations.

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