Even if you’re well past your teen years and technically outside of the recommended HPV vaccine window (suggested age is 9 to 45 years old), there are still a few things you need to know about the human papillomavirus, a.k.a. the most common sexually transmitted infection out there.

It is estimated that 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, primarily women and men in their late teens and early 20s. In fact, HPV is so prevalent, most people are likely to contract it at some point during their lifetime, and 80 percent of women are liable to contract it by the age of 50.

The Spread of HPV

HPV typically spreads through skin-to-skin sexual contact via vaginal, anal or oral sex, even if there are no symptoms present. This means that no matter how safe you are when it comes to sexual partners, or even if you don’t have intercourse, you can still contract the virus, as any area not covered by a condom can still become infected. You can also develop symptoms years after being exposed, making it challenging to know when the infection actually occurred.

Risks Associated with HPV

Of the well over 100 different HPV viruses out there, more than a dozen pose a higher risk of related cancers, and many can be linked to various health problems including genital warts. The good news is that while people can carry multiple strains of HPV, most strains do not pose any health problems and simply go away on their own naturally, causing no long-term ill effects. As a matter of fact, 90 percent of HPV cases clear up on their own within two years.

In other cases, HPV can persist, causing cellular changes that can later lead to cervical cancer or other types of cancer such as the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and throat. More specifically, HPV strains 16 and 18 are found to pose the highest risk and make up 70 percent of all cervical cancers and 5 percent of all cancer cases worldwide. Cancer can take years or even decades to develop after the virus has been contracted.

Receiving regular screenings and Pap tests (suggested every 3 years for women aged 21 to 65) can help diagnose any HPV-related health problems sooner and identify any abnormal cells or areas of concern. More frequent screenings may be needed if cell changes develop or an HPV infection persists.

Preventing HPV

One of the safest and most effective ways you can protect against HPV-related health problems (especially many HPV-related cancers) is to get vaccinated. The HPV vaccine is recommended for preteen girls and boys aged 11 or 12 (or even as young as 9) before becoming sexually active on a two-dose schedule — the first dose followed by a second six to 12 months later. Those aged 15 to 45 will require three doses of the vaccination.

Those over the age of 26 can still receive the HPV vaccination until the age of 45. The American College of OBGYN states that vaccination in this age group “should be the result of shared decision-making between patients and their physicians.” This decision should consider the individual’s risk of exposure to HPV and other risk factors such as smoking and a weakened immune system. Speak to your doctor to find out if you would be a good candidate for the HPV vaccine.

Contact Beaches OBGYN at (904) 241-9775 for more information or to schedule an appointment.