Can HPV Be Fatal?
When first learning about HPV and its prevention, most people have questions about whether or not the virus can actually kill you. The answer is no, and yes.
HPV is thought to contribute to cancers such as cervical and vulvular cancers in women, and penile cancer in men. The human papillomavirus is sometimes fairly harmless, as with HPV types 1 and 2, which cause warts on your hands. Other types, however, can linger in your body for years and cause your immune system to be weakened, and even allow damage to cells; this damage can result in cancer.
Examples would be types 16 and 18, which are thought to be the causes of some cervical cancers. Other types are also spread during sexual contact, and can eventually become causal factors in the development of anal cancer, penile cancer, and even a cancer of the throat called “oropharyngeal squamous-cell carcinoma”.
In a normal healthy human body, many of the more common strains of HPV virus, when contracted, are cleared within a few years: they cannot be cured but they clear up on their own. But another way that HPV can be dangerous is that it weakens your immune system over time and allows greater susceptibility to other “opportunistic” infections, any of which may be fatal in themselves. These might include other sexually-transmitted diseases, or non-sexually transmitted viruses.
Again, it is accurate to say that the majority of the 250 strains of HPV virus do not provide a serious health threat, beyond some visible warts – while embarrassing and unsightly, these are not fatal. But the sixteen or so strains that cause cancer are out there, and should be taken seriously. It is estimated that about half the human population will contract at least one strain of the HPV virus in his or her lifetime; about eight in ten women will contract HPV.
These are good reasons to get regular health screening for HPV; there is no overall screening test to tell you if you are positive for HPV, but there are tests that screen for the sometimes life-threatening conditions that might result from long-term infection with the genital strains of HPV. For example, if you are a woman, you should get an annual pap smear to screen for changes in cervical cells that may be pre-cancerous. Early detection is that best way to keep a potentially fatal cancer from developing. Recently, some physicians have recommended that for gay and bisexual men who are sexually active, pap tests of the anal region may be useful in screening for the possible early signs of anal cancer.
The best way to protect yourself from any potentially fatal situation is to practice safe sex and get regular health screenings. Prevention is key in protecting yourself from the HPV virus; however it is important to know that condoms cannot offer 100% protection from HPV. Vaccines on the market to prevent HPV infection are proving useful in prevention for some of the more cancer-inducing strains. Vaccines are never 100% effective, and you should talk to your doctor about whether those that prevent HPV – Gardasil and Cervarix – might make sense for you.