Understanding HPV and Cervical Cancer
Human papillomavirus, more commonly known as HPV, has gotten a great deal of attention lately, especially with regard to the HPV vaccine. But what exactly is HPV, and how is it related to cervical cancer?
What is HPV?
HPV is a large family of more than 100 viruses that infect the skin. Some of the viruses are transmitted through nonsexual personal contact and can cause common skin warts. Several, though, are spread through sexual contact.
Of the sexually transmitted types of HPV, some can cause warts of the genitals or anal area, while others can lead to cancer and pre-cancerous changes of the cervix, anus, or skin of the penis or vagina. That said, the majority of HPV infections do not lead to either warts or cancer, and most infections go away by themselves without causing any symptoms.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
Cancer of the cervix is a serious but preventable disease that can usually be cured if discovered in its early stages. According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer begins in the lining of the cervix and forms quite slowly. Doctors use several terms to describe these pre-cancerous changes, including cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN), squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL), and dysplasia.
There are two main types of cervical cancers: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. About 80 to 90 percent of cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which affect the flat, thin squamous cells that cover the surface of the endocervix.
The remaining 10 to 20 percent of cervical cancers are adenocarcinomas, which are more commonly found in women born after 1980. Cervical adenocarcinoma develops from the mucus-producing gland cells of the endocervix. Less commonly, cervical cancers have features of both squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas. These are called adenosquamous carcinomas or mixed carcinomas.
4 Ways to Reduce Your Risks
You can minimize your chances of getting several forms of HPV and cervical cancer by following these guidelines.
· Talk to your doctor about getting the HPV vaccine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, for girls and women ages 9 to 26. Ideally, vaccination should occur before the onset of sexual activity; it works best for those who have not been infected with any of the four HPV types covered by the vaccine (6, 11, 16, and 18). When administered correctly, the vaccine is 95 to 100 percent effective in preventing these types of HPV, according to the FDA.
- Limit your sexual partners. Engaging in monogamous sex with a partner who also practices monogamous sex can reduce your exposure to HPV. Multiple partners can increase your risk of contracting HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
- Use condoms. Condoms don't fully protect against HPV, but they can lower your chances of getting it. Condoms can also help to prevent the spread of HIV, herpes, and other sexually transmitted infections.
- Get regular Pap tests. These exams can help ensure that pre-cancerous changes in the cervix caused by HPV infection do not develop into cervical cancer.
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