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an article by
Sheran Sharafi
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Human Papillomavirus
A trip to your dentist will now mean more than just a quick look at your teeth and gums. A routine examination may now include some questions about your sexual history. The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus and includes more than 100 different strains. According to the American Social Health Association (ASHA), 75% of Americans who are sexually active will contract HPV at some point in their lives. Even though HPV has been attributed as commonly associated with cervical cancer and genital warts, it is not common knowledge that HPV may also cause oral cancer. According to some dentists and researchers HPV has become the fastest growing oral cancer causing agent.

What is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?

HPV, or the Human Papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). It has various strains that can infect both males and females in the genital areas as well as the mouth and throat. Many people who become infected with HPV do not know they have it. This infection is not the same as herpes or HIV, which is the virus that causes AIDS, but it does have one crucial similarity. All three of these infections/diseases are passed during sex, but they each cause different health problems and have different symptoms.

What are the symptoms of HPV?

In 90% of HPV cases your own body’s immune system will help defeat the virus within 2 years. The problem and dangerous side of HPV infections is when HPV is not cleared. When your body is not able to fight off the virus alone the following signs and symptoms may occur:

  • Genital Warts
  • RRP, or Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis, is warts in the throat. Warts in the throat may cause the infected patient to develop or hoarse voice or may block the airway and make it hard to breath.
  • HPV may cause various forms of cancers. These cancers may be in the genital areas/reproductive organs or even in the oropharynx, which is the back of the throat including the tongue and tonsils. Often times cancers caused by HPV do not show any symptoms until the cancer is at an advanced stage. For this reason it is important for sexually active individuals to get screened by the doctors and dentist for HPV and HPV related symptoms.

Genital warts are not caused by the same HPV strain as the one that causes cancer. There is no way to know which people will come into contact with the virus that will go on to develop cancer of any of the other health problems.

How Do People Get HPV?

HPV is passed from person to person through genital contact, often during vaginal or anal sex. It may also be passed during oral sex or genital-to-genital contact. It can be passed between straight and same-sex partners and can even be passed on when the infected partner does not show any signs of infection. A person may have been infected with the disease for years before they realize that they have caught the virus from a previous sex partner. It is also possible that an individual may be infected by more than one strain of HPV.

It is very rare, but there have been cases in which a woman who is pregnant and infected with genital HPV passes on the virus to her baby during delivery. This child may end up developing Juvenile-Onset Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis, or JORRP.

How Can You Prevent Contracting HPV?

There are several ways in which people can lower their chances of contracting HPV:

  • Vaccines have been created to prevent males and females from being infected with the most common strains of HPV which can lead to disease and different types of cancers. These vaccines are given in 3 shots and for optimal protection it is important to receive all three.
  • For those who are sexually active, condoms are the best form of protection against HPV when used through all sexual acts. They may also help lower the risk of developing HPV related diseases. HPV may infect areas not covered by the condom, so while effective, this prevention technique is not 100%.
  • The only sure way to avoid contracting the disease 100% is to avoid having any sexual activity. Choosing a partner who has had few or no sexual partners in the past and staying faithful to that partner may also help lower the risk, but even people who have only one sex partner their whole lifetime may get HPV.

Is there a test for HPV?

There is no test that may check men and women to see what their overall HPV status. The best way to diagnose if one is infected by HPV is to be honest with all your doctors about your sexual activity. Top dentists and the best doctors in America have been taught how to screen patients in all areas of their bodies, whether in the genital area or orally, for any signs of the disease.

All dentists are trained to provide comprehensive oral screening examinations, but each dentist decides how to implement his/her training in the office. If you feel that your dentist is not providing you with a complete health examination it might be time to find a dentist who will – your life may depend on it. Oral cancer is no joke and when caught early it is easily treatable. Patients who get diagnosed early do end up living a long and healthy life.

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