69% of People Have This Sexually Transmitted Virus and Don't Know It

November 14th 2015

Out of all sexually transmitted diseases, HPV (human papillomavirus) is found the most in the United States. But if you have it, chances are very high that you don't know it. And that could be bad news for your long-term health.

Most individuals who are sexually active will contract HPV at some point during their lifetime. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are a staggering 14.1 million new HPV infections a year and that 79.1 million infections likely already exist. And those estimates might be low.

RELATED: Watch out for These Five Uncommon STDs

A study last year reported that as many as 69 percent of people are infected with HPV. That's nearly 220 million Americans in a country considering our population of more than 318 million. More recent research suggests even that number might be conservative.

"HPV is incredibly common," Cal Poly Pomona health educator Carla Jackson told ATTN:. "At least 80 percent of the population is going to have HPV at some point, and it could be higher, because it's such a large family of viruses. We don't notice it because, most of the time, our immune system just handles it."

It's difficult to diagnose HPV, and there is no one test to find out a person's HPV status. There are more than 150 strains of HPV, from those that cause genital warts to those that are linked to cervical cancer to those with no symptoms and that clear up on their own.

It may surprise you to find out that many HPV strains aren't even considered sexually transmitted. In a 2014 survey, researchers found that 41 percent of participants had vaginal HPV infections, but 61 percent had HPV on the skin and almost 20 percent had HPV infections in the gut. About 30 percent had HPV in the mouth. Complicating tracking of HPV is the fact that cases of the viral infection aren't often reported to the CDC.

If it's so common, should we worry?

In the face of such a common problem, it may seem like you shouldn't worry. Medical professionals emphasize that HPV is transient in most people and not generally a cause for concern, but they point out that it can also cause cancer.

The National Cancer Institute reports that HPV causes the following percentage of cancers:

  • 90 percent of anal cancers
  • 65 percent of vaginal cancers
  • Nearly 100 percent of cervical cancers
  • 50 percent of vulvar cancers
  • 35 percent of penile cancers

More alarming, more young adults have developed oral cancer within the last four decades than during the previous 100 years combined, and researchers are blaming HPV.

The HPV vaccine

Despite these risks, opinions are still mixed on whether to recommend Gardasil, the HPV vaccine.

On the one hand, experts credit the HPV vaccine with a "significant reduction in vaccine-type HPV," so we know that it's effective.

"Make sure you get your kids vaccinated [for HPV]," Carole Fakhry of the Johns Hopkins Head and Neck Cancer Center told CNN, emphasizing what researchers are discovering about oral HPV. "The truth of the matter is that smoking-related cancers are declining. On the other hand, cancers related to HPV are increasing."

On the other hand, there are tests available to screen for the most common form of HPV-linked cancer, cervical carcinomas. And exposure to many strains of HPV may stimulate the immune system against more troubling forms of the virus without causing harm.

"[Cervical cancer] is not a particular fast-growing kind of cancer, so regular screenings should be adequate," Jackson told ATTN:. "What's more concerning are those people who don't get screened, so HPV goes undetected, ... [as do] the [types of cancer] that we don't have screenings for."

Beyond the vaccine, there are behavioral ways of managing HPV risk, such as always using a latex barrier or a condom. Such methods may make the vaccine less necessary for some people, Jackson said.

Early research shows that the female reproductive tract is more susceptible to HPV at a young age and becomes more resistant over time, which is part of the reason the vaccine is only suggested for younger populations. The CDC recommends that adolescents receive the vaccine at the age of 11 or 12.

Jackson suggests having an open dialogue about the benefits of the vaccine, as well as behavioral options for risk reduction. "Talking with my daughter, [I've said] this vaccine has these pros, and here are some other things that you can do," Jackson said. "I think she's actually leaning toward [the vaccine], and if that's what she decides, I'll take her in to get it when the time comes."

Editor's Note: This story was updated to deal with attribution problems.

ALSO: College Sophomores Are Abandoning Condoms

Share your opinion

Have you been tested in the last year for STDs?

Yes 42%No 58%