STD Awareness: Can Genital Warts Lead to Cancer?

HPV from CDCOne of the most confusing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) out there is human papillomavirus, or HPV. Despite the fact that it’s the most common STD in the United States, most Americans don’t know very much about it. So, whenever I wade into conversations about HPV on Internet message boards, I prepare myself to enter an ocean of misinformation and misunderstandings.


The strains of HPV that cause genital warts are different from those that cause cancer.


This post, in fact, was inspired by some particularly egregious falsehoods spouted by quite confident-sounding message-board denizens who were dispensing advice to a distraught man with genital warts. He had read that the virus responsible for genital warts was also responsible for cervical cancer, and was upset that he might have “given” cancer to his beloved girlfriend. While some commenters gave good advice, others shared ideas that were not factually correct — and in a forum devoid of sources or citations, it would have been difficult for him to distinguish the bad information from the good.

Situations such as these highlight why it’s not a great idea to get medical advice from the “hive mind” of the World Wide Web. I know American health-care access still isn’t all it can be, but dang — I hope most people know to use reputable sources, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), whenever they take to the ’net in search of health information.

The first thing to know about HPV is that it can be spread by any type of sexual contact — penetrative and non-penetrative. It can be transmitted by vaginal sex and anal sex, as well as by oral sex or rubbing genitals together, even without penetration. Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Next Generation of Gardasil Is Coming!

noisemakersIt’s January, which means it’s time to festoon our surroundings with streamers, throw around the confetti, break out the noisemakers, and shout Happy Cervical Health Awareness Month!

And, in 2015, we have something huge to celebrate: Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Gardasil 9, the next-generation HPV vaccine, which provides broader protection than the current version. Next month, the new and improved vaccine will start to be shipped to health care providers, and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is expected to give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the green light to recommend the vaccine, after which insurance plans and the Vaccines for Children program should start covering it.


The newest version of Gardasil protects against the seven strains of human papillomavirus that together cause 90 percent of cervical cancers.


Why is this news so exciting for people who care about cervical health? Because, while the current version of Gardasil, which debuted in 2006, protects recipients from the two HPV strains that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers, Gardasil 9 will protect against seven strains of HPV that collectively cause 90 percent of cervical cancers. On top of that, both versions of Gardasil protect against the two HPV strains that are together responsible for 90 percent of genital warts.

Gardasil 9 has been shown to be highly effective in clinical studies, and it is safe to use, which means Gardasil just became an even more potent weapon against cancers caused by HPV. Not only that, but vaccination against HPV will also reduce the frequency of precancerous lesions, which are cellular abnormalities that can be treated before progressing into full-fledged cancer. Less pre-cancer means less time, money, and anxiety spent dealing with followup procedures after an abnormal Pap test, for example. Continue reading

Is Pap Testing Better Than HPV Vaccination?

Good news: The decision to be vaccinated for HPV or receive regular Pap testing isn't either/or. Image: Andy Newson

Good news: The decision to be vaccinated for HPV or receive regular Pap testing isn’t either/or. Image: Andy Newson

It’s January, which means that it’s Cervical Health Awareness Month! If you have a cervix, there are two big things you can do to protect its health: get vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) before becoming sexually active, and receive regular Pap testing after becoming sexually active. When you take both of these steps, you can maximize what modern medicine has to offer. However, some people think you can just do one and ignore the other. Are they right?

You’ve probably heard of HPV, which causes genital warts and certain cancers. This virus has the dubious honor of being the most common sexually transmitted pathogen — some call it “the common cold of STDs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually-active men and women get it at some point in their lives. This is true even for people who only have sex with one person in their lifetime.”


HPV isn’t just the “cervical cancer virus” — it’s a jack of all trades that can trigger cellular abnormalities all over the body.


One of the cancers most commonly caused by HPV is cervical cancer. In fact, when Gardasil, the most popular HPV vaccine in the United States, made its debut, it was marketed as a “cervical cancer vaccine,” despite the fact that HPV can cause other types of cancer. Nevertheless, a vaccine that could protect against such a common and potentially dangerous virus was good news indeed. However, some critics were quick to point out that cervical cancer is rare in the United States, thanks to widespread access to Pap testing, an effective screening procedure that can catch cellular abnormalities when they are still in their “precancerous” stages, allowing them to be treated before progressing to cancer.

For those of us planning to receive regular Pap testing, is vaccination really necessary? Likewise, if we’ve been vaccinated against HPV, do we really need regular Pap tests? Let’s examine both questions separately. Continue reading

Arm Yourself Against Genital Warts and Cancer!

RosieVaccineBWVaccines are pretty nifty: Injecting a few tiny particles stimulates your immune system to build antibodies, which can bind to and help destroy harmful pathogens. A well-oiled immune system can neutralize these invaders before they have a chance to make you sick! In the war against infectious disease, we should be boosting our immune systems at every opportunity, and vaccines are one of the best weapons in our arsenal.

You’ve probably heard of HPV, or human papillomavirus, which causes genital warts and certain cancers. HPV has the dubious honor of being the most common sexually transmitted pathogen — some call it “the common cold of STDs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually-active men and women get it at some point in their lives. This is true even for people who only have sex with one person in their lifetime.”


You might not know how easy it is to contract HPV — vaccination allows you to take charge of your health.


There are many strains of HPV. “Low-risk” strains can cause genital warts, which aren’t usually harmful but might be upsetting. “High-risk” strains can cause cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina, vulva, penis, mouth, and throat. The good news is that a vaccine called Gardasil protects against HPV-6 and HPV-11, which cause 90 percent of genital warts, and HPV-16 and HPV-18, which cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of anal cancers.

With protection available against a common virus that can cause upsetting warts or fatal cancer, you’d think that everyone would be lining up for Gardasil shots — but, unfortunately, vaccination rates are very low in the United States. Many of us opt out of vaccination for ourselves or our children because we don’t realize how easily HPV is acquired, or we minimize its potential to harm.

HPV is easier to contract than you might think, so if you think the risk is too small to outweigh other justifications against immunization, read on — you might not be aware of just how easy it is to acquire this wily virus. Vaccination is an empowering option for those of us who want to do all we can to take our health into our own hands. And, by being immunized, we can play a role in driving cancer-causing viruses into extinction, which would be feasible with sufficiently improved vaccination rates. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Can Oral Sex Cause Throat Cancer?

mouthLast month, actor Michael Douglas gave a frank interview in which he revealed that human papillomavirus (HPV) caused his throat cancer. And, he continued, he got the virus from performing oral sex — specifically, cunnilingus (oral contact with female genitalia). It’s unusual for celebrities to be open about their STD status — and Douglas’ spokesperson has since backpedaled on his comment — so Douglas is to be commended for bringing light to a taboo and little-understood topic. But there were a few things he got wrong, too.


No matter your gender or sexual orientation, performing unprotected oral sex can increase cancer risk.


HPV is a common virus that can be spread by most sexual activities — including vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as rubbing genitals together. There are many strains of HPV, which come in two main categories: low-risk HPV, which can cause genital warts; and high-risk HPV, which can cause cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina, vulva, penis, mouth, and throat. The majority of HPV-related cancers are caused by two strains of HPV: HPV-16 and HPV-18.

The good news is that there is a vaccine that can protect you from infection by HPV-16 and HPV-18. Furthermore, most people clear an HPV infection within two years. HPV-related throat cancer is rare, affecting just 2.6 out of 100,000 people.

Can oral sex really lead to throat cancer?

Unfortunately, it is absolutely true that oral sex can transmit HPV, and a chronic infection can cause cancer. Oral sex is indeed sex. It’s not “third base,” it’s not “almost sex,” it’s plain old, straight-up sex, carrying with it the potential for both pleasure and disease transmission. Unfortunately, because so many of us have a lax attitude toward it, fewer people take precautions when engaging in oral sex, and are less likely to use condoms or dental dams. Combined with low vaccination rates for HPV in the United States, the virus is even easier to acquire than it needs to be. Continue reading

6 Myths About HPV

This is what HPV might look like if you were shrunk down to the size of a virus. Image: University of Arizona

When I was a high school student in the 1990s, human papillomavirus (HPV) didn’t get a lot of screen time in our sex education classes. They slapped a few scary pictures of genital warts on the overhead projector and called it a day, neither mentioning that other strains of HPV could cause cancer, nor elucidating the connection between the virus and Pap testing.

Since the introduction of the HPV vaccine, awareness of the virus has skyrocketed — but with that increased awareness has come a flurry of myths and misinformation.

1 Myth: Condoms are useless in protecting against HPV.
Fact: The consistent use of condoms decreases the risk for HPV transmission.

Many people claim that condoms are worthless protection against HPV, reasoning that because the virus lurks in skin cells and condoms don’t cover the entire genital region, HPV transmission can still result from skin-to-skin contact. There is a kernel of truth here, but it is an exaggeration that condoms are useless. Although latex condoms don’t necessarily cover the entire affected area, using them consistently and correctly lowers the risk of contracting HPV. While latex condoms are even more effective in protecting against fluid-borne sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as HIV and chlamydia, they can still reduce the spread of HPV.

One study found that over an eight-month period, females whose male partners used condoms each and every time were 70 percent less likely to acquire HPV than were females whose partners used condoms only 5 percent of the time. This is hardly a case against condoms!

Other studies have shown that condom use can promote the regression of both cervical-cell abnormalities and penile lesions, as well as increase the speed at which HPV is cleared by the immune system. Put in plainer English, even if you’re already infected with a cancer-causing strain of HPV, using condoms can decrease your chances of developing cervical or penile cancer.

2 Myth: If you abstain from sex until marriage, you don’t have to worry about STDs, including HPV.
Fact: Even if you only have had one sexual partner, you can still acquire an STD. Continue reading

Interpreting Abnormal Pap Tests

Because a Pap test screens for abnormal cervical cells and because those cell changes can be associated with cervical cancer, being on the receiving end of an abnormal Pap test result can be frightening, intimidating, and confusing.

On the “frightening” aspect: Some people assume that an abnormal Pap means that cervical cancer is imminent. On the contrary, the National Cancer Institute not only states that cervical cancer, when it develops, takes “many years” to do so, but also that “[t]he majority of infections with high-risk HPVs [human papillomaviruses] clear up on their own.” This is not to suggest that regular screenings aren’t important — but rather, that they do their job and detect cervical changes in plenty of time to prevent cancer from developing in the first place.


Remember that if you’re confused about your Pap test results, part of your health care provider’s job is to answer your questions and keep you informed.


On the “confusing”: It’s true. There are a lot of different letter codes. Though some of them look awfully similar, they each mean a different thing. Moreover, the clinical recommendations for how to follow up with an abnormal Pap can depend not only on the code — in other words, the specific abnormal result — but also on one’s age and medical history.

Ready to sort them out?

Most labs in the United States use a classification system called the Bethesda System in order to have some standard terminology when reporting results. The Bethesda System uses the term squamous intraepithelial lesion to describe changes on the surface of the cervix. It categorizes those changes in these ways: Continue reading