*Originally published on 10/3/2021 under "Ask Ang"*
"How anxious should I be if I am under 21 but have been sexually active and haven’t gotten a cervical cancer screening? Is there anything I can do to prevent the HPV virus?"
This is such an important question! American sex and health education leaves a lot of us confused about our bodies and how to care for them. Don’t worry, though, there’s no need to be anxious!
If you are worried you may have been exposed to an STI, make an appointment at one of these locations to get tested (all sexually active people should get tested at least once a year). Most doctors suggest that people with vaginas begin getting pap smears at age 21 and continue getting checked every three years until they turn 30 at which point they begin getting tested for HPV. A pap smear is a simple, in-office procedure that collects cervical cells to determine if they are cancerous or precancerous. This sounds scary but around 80% of people with vaginas contract HPV before age 30. Most people’s immune systems beat off the virus before it causes visible symptoms like skin or genital warts, so testing before age 30 without extenuating factors is not recommended.
There are over 150 strains of HPV that may lead to no symptoms or cause warts to grow. If you develop a wart or warts on your genitals or notice that you have warts that are changing in size, shape, or color, make an appointment to see a medical professional. Most of the time they are easily treatable.
In some cases HPV can lead to precancerous lesions which can become cancerous if left untreated. This is why it is important to see a gynecologist yearly and frequently get tested for STIs (preventative healthcare saves lives!). Additionally, if you have a family history of cervical, vaginal, or anal cancer make sure to consult with a healthcare professional to see if you need to be tested earlier or more frequently.
There are things you can do to prevent HPV!
While it is recommended that children between 9 and 14 are vaccinated against HPV, the vaccine is FDA approved for people up to age 45. It is increasingly being administered to those between 15 and 26, so make sure to talk to a healthcare provider about getting vaccinated. Additionally, contraceptives including condoms and dental dams can protect against HPV, though no form (other than total abstinence) is 100% effective. Importantly: the pill, IUD, and spermicide will not prevent HPV.
Make sure to check yourself regularly for moles or other skin irregularities and encourage your sexual partner(s) to do the same. Ultimately, the best way to protect yourself against HPV is to get vaccinated and use protection consistently and correctly.
Be safe and take a deep breath.