3 Tips to Lower Your Risk of HPV-Related Cancers

The HPV vaccine may be able to prevent tens of thousands of cancers a year.

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It may not be the most pleasant fact, but the human papillomavirus (HPV) affects about 80 percent of Americans at some point in their life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Human papillomavirus may come and go for most people, but some HPV strains can increase the risk of certain cancers. For this reason, it’s important to know ways you can lower the risk of HPV-related cancers.

HPV and Cancer

HPV is a group of more than 200 related viruses, and about 40 types spread via sexual contact. The majority of HPV infections pass on their own within two years, but some last longer. These long-term infections can lead to abnormal changes in the cells, which are called precancers.

For example, HPV leads to about 10,900 cervical cancers in women every year, according to the CDC. But that’s not all: It can also increase the risk of cancers of the throat, anus, penis, vulva, and vagina.

How to Lower the Risk of HPV-Related Cancers

Because HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, the most obvious way to prevent HPV infection is to not have sex. Of course, that’s not the only way (or even the most realistic way) to lower the risk of HPV-related cancers.

1. Get vaccinated

The HPV vaccine doesn’t protect against all HPV types, but it specifically protects against the types most commonly linked to cancer. Experts recommend the HPV vaccine for adolescents at age 11 or 12. The goal is to gain protection before the adolescent becomes sexually active.

However, the HPV vaccine is available for people up to age 45. Talk to your doctor if you’re curious about your eligibility.

The HPV vaccine hit the scene in 2006, and it’s already showing positive results. Infection from the HPV types that cause cancer has dropped 86 percent among teenage girls, according to the CDC. This could be promising for the future of HPV-related cancer prevention.

2. Get regular check-ups “down there”

Regular visits with your ob/gyn can help identify precancerous changes early. Pap smear exams actually look for precancerous changes in the cervix. Without treatment, these changes can progress to cancer. Additionally, HPV tests can check for the presence of HPV infection, allowing you and your doctor to treat the infection early or monitor for changes.

Find out what to expect at your first Pap smear exam here.

3. Wear a latex condom

Condoms aren’t a silver bullet against sexually transmitted infections, but they do lower the risk significantly. Learn more about using condoms properly here.

If you’re concerned about your risk, or you're curious about the HPV vaccine, talk to your doctor. They can help demystify HPV—and HPV-related cancers.