We’ve all heard the crazy-scary stats: If you’re a sexually active single, you will probably become infected with HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. Now a new study presented at this month’s American Society for Microbiology meeting shows that HPV may be even more pervasive. NYU Langone Medical Center researchers found that 69 percent of healthy American adults are infected with at least one strain of human papillomavirus.
Why are we just now finding this out? The test that detects HPV is geared toward cervical cancer prevention, which means it primarily looks for strains specifically linked to the disease, says study author Zhiheng Pei, M.D., Ph.D. “There are more than 170 HPV types,” he says. “About 10 percent are responsible for cervical cancer.” These strains are referred to as “high-risk” HPV and are the ones that current medical tests focus on.
In the study, the researchers were able to detect 109 strains of HPV—primarily on the skin and in women’s vaginas—in a group of 103 healthy people. (FYI, you can catch HPV through non-sexual skin-to-skin contact too.)
But before you freak out, consider this: The strains not associated with cervical cancer may actually be good for you. [Tweet this news!] “They may establish your anti-HPV immunity,” Pei says. “There is limited space in the body for HPV, and if the non-risk virus first occupies the spot, then you’re resistant to further invasion from the high-risk types.”
Pei likens this to the beneficial bacteria that we all have living inside of us. “The normal bacteria flora in our system do good things,” he says. “Maybe there is such a group of HPV viruses that do good for our immune system.”
That said, not every strain has been studied, which means some may trigger the Big C in other parts of your body. (Case in point: Pei says that about half of cancers in the pharynx are due to HPV.) “The study of HPV and cancer has mainly been focused on cervical cancer,” says Pei. Research on the virus and other types of cancer is limited, since the cervical cancer HPV testing kit doesn’t detect the viral strains that tend to live in people’s mouths or on their skin. “That’s probably our next step: to try to invent a test that can detect all HPV types and use that to study oral cancer,” says Pei. For now, your best defense is prevention. Here are four common STDs—and how to protect yourself.
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