You must have known various risk factors such as smoking, tobacco, environmental carcinogens and even your heredity, which increases your chance of getting cancer. But did you know sexually transmitted diseases such as HPV infections can also increase your risk of getting cancer?
HPV is the short term used for Human Papillomavirus (HPV). It is a large group of viruses that are commonly found on the moist surfaces of the body. These viruses cause warts on the skin, chest, arms, hands or feet and mucous membranes of the body. Mucous membranes are the moist surface linings of organs and other body parts such as the mouth, throat, anus or vagina.
Some types of HPV can also cause abnormal growths, which can turn into precancerous lesions and cancer. As HPV can cause cancer, it is essential to prevent cancer associated with it. So let’s discuss in detail the link between cancer and HPV and how to avoid it?
What is HPV infection?
HPV infection is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STDs). It is widespread and can be transferred from one person to another by skin to skin contact or sexual activity. Sometimes it spreads without showing any signs or symptoms.
Risk of getting HPV increases among persons engaged in sexual activity with an infected person or multiple partners. If this infection is left untreated, it becomes long-lasting and can cause cancer over time.
It is categorised into two different types:
- Low-risk HPV: Some types of HPV lead to genital warts on and around the genitals
(penis or vagina) and anus of both men and women. These infections are low risk and cannot cause deadly diseases such as cancer.
- High-risk HPV: Some types of HPV are high risk and can cause cancer in both men and women. These infections are chronic and long-lasting.
How does HPV infection cause cancer?
There exist more than 30 strains of HPV that infect your genital tract. Among these strains, some are high risk, such as HPV 16 and 18 associated with cancer risk.
When your body is exposed to these high-risk strains, your immune system comes into action and prevents the virus from doing any harm. But sometimes, this virus is not cleared out from the body and survives for years.
Over time, this virus infects the cells and also causes unwanted changes in the infected cells. These undesirable changes can cause abnormal growth, which turns into precancerous lesions and progress in cancer.
Which cancers are linked to HPV infection?
Chronic infection with high-risk HPVs causes cancers in various parts of the body, such as the oropharynx and oral cavity (including the tongue, the soft palate, the side and back walls of the throat, and the tonsils) penis, cervix, vagina, vulva and anus.
Cancers linked with HPV infection are:
- Cervical cancer: It is the most common cancer related to HPV, and usually, all cervical cancers occur as a result of HPV infection.
- Oropharyngeal cancers: HPV can also cause mouth and throat cancers. Most HPV-related cancer develops in the throat and back of the tongue.
- Anal cancer: Most anal cancer in both men and women are caused by HPV. However, the risk of HPV related anal cancer is higher in patients with HIV.
- Penile cancer: HPV can cause cancer of the penis in men, and those who had HIV infection are more susceptible to develop HPV related penile cancer.
- Vaginal and Vulvar cancer: These are very rare cancers of women and usually develop after years of HPV infection.
How to prevent HPV related cancer?
There are no effective ways to prevent HPV infection and the cancer associated with it. Still, specific measures can help to lower the chances and reduce the risk of developing HPV related cancers. These measures are explained as follows:
Get vaccinated: HPV vaccines are available to protect young children and adults against HPV infections. These viruses will protect you against the HPV vaccine, reduce genital and anal warts, and reduce HPV related cancer.
The American Cancer Society recommends HPV vaccination in:
- Children between the ages of 9 and 12.
- Children and young adults age 13 through 26 who have not been vaccinated or who haven’t received all their doses
Limit the exposure to HPV: Individuals who are engaged with multiple sex partners or have multiple sex partners and have other sexually transmitted diseases are at higher risk of getting an HPV infection.
Avoiding sex with people having multiple partners and limiting the number of sex partners can significantly lower your exposure to the HPV virus. The best way to prevent HPV is to practice safe sex and remain in a mutually monogamous sexual relationship with an uninfected partner.
Regular screening: High-risk HPV infections, which often lead to cancer, did not present symptoms most of the time. Early screening can help to find or prevent specific cancer associated with HPV, such as cervical cancer. In addition, HPV tests are often done to look for viruses that can induce cell changes and precancerous lesions.
Pap testing is also prescribed in women to look for precancerous lesions in the cervix that may develop into cervical cancer if not treated. However, no screening test has been approved to find HPV on the penis or vulva or in the anus, mouth, or throat; therefore, it is advised to see your physician if you notice any unusual changes in your body.
Quit smoking and tobacco: Research studies have also suggested that smoking and chewing tobacco puts you at higher risk of getting HPV infection and thus related cancers, especially throat cancer. Therefore, avoid smoking and tobacco use to protect yourself from HPV related cancers.
HPV is the most common STD and can easily be transmitted from one person to another. More than half of sexually active people are at risk of getting a genital infection with HPV at some point in their lives but may never know. So, it is essential to protect yourself from HPV infections as it may increase your chances of getting cancer.
An essential thing that can be done to prevent this is proper vaccination and early screening. Early screening will not only detect HPV infections but also helps to recognise precancerous lesions if any. If you want to prevent HPV and various problems associated with it, be sure to get regular health checkups, early smears and screenings.