Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. There are many different types of HPV (over 100 different kinds of viruses) and more than 30 are sexually transmitted – they can infect the genital areas of males and females. These HPV types can also infect the mouth and throat. Most people who become infected with HPV do not even know they have it. It is estimated that as much as 80% of the population is infected with a strain of HPV at some point in their life.
If you are sexually active, or thinking about becoming sexually active, your best protection is to learn the facts about how HPV is spread and how to prevent getting it.
Some types (such as 6 and 11) cause genital warts, others (such as 16 and 18) cause pre-cancerous changes on the cervix that can later lead to cancer of the cervix. In rare cases, the virus can cause other types of cancers to the vulva, vagina, and anus in girls.
Human Papillomavirus – transmission
At least 1 in every 2 sexually active young women has had a genital HPV infection. Any sexually active person—no matter what color, race, gender, or sexual orientation—can get HPV. HPV is mainly spread by sexual contact. Very rarely, a mother who is infected with the HPV virus can infect her newborn baby during the delivery.
HPV and genital warts are usually spread by direct skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has been infected with HPV. Using condoms every time you have sex can help protect against HPV but they aren’t perfect because HPV can be found on skin that isn’t covered by a condom.
It is noted by scientists that in 90% of cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV naturally within two years.
Human Papillomavirus – symptoms
Depending on what type of HPV strain you are infected with, you may or may not experience any HPV symptoms. Those infected with what is known as “low risk” HPV will likely just have one HPV symptom: genital warts. These can develop anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after exposure to the virus. Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or groups of bumps in the genital area. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. Genital warts look like miniature cauliflower florets, which are usually flesh-colored, soft and moist. They can develop on the vulva, cervix and in or around the vagina. HPV in men who have a strain that causes genital warts may develop the warts on the scrotum or penis. Both sexes may also develop genital warts symptoms in or around the anus and occasionally on the thighs, buttocks or throat. However, it is possible to have an HPV infection without any genital warts symptoms.
If left untreated, genital warts might go away, remain unchanged, or increase in size or number. They will not turn into cancer.
Other HPV types can cause cervical cancer. These types can also cause other, less common but serious cancers, including cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and head and neck (tongue, tonsils and throat).
Cervical cancer usually does not have symptoms until it is quite advanced. For this reason, it is important for women to get regular screening for cervical cancer (PAP test). Screening tests can find early signs of disease so that problems can be treated early, before they ever turn into cancer.
The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancer. There is no way to know which people who get HPV will go on to develop cancer or other health problems.
If you get the HPV virus, it may cause the following:
- The infected area of your body remains totally normal (called latent or inactive infection). You may never know about it, but you may give the infection to others. Your body then usually clears the infection.
- Bumps, called genital warts, can be seen in your genital area. They almost never lead to cancer.
- Changes in the cells of your cervix can result in an abnormal Pap test. Most of the time, if you are a teenager, your body will clear the HPV and the Pap test will become normal again over several years. However, sometimes the HPV infection persists in your cervix which can lead to cervical cancer. This is why your doctor will want to see you for follow-up visits if you have had an abnormal Pap test.
Human Papillomavirus – diagnosis
HPV – Genital warts
The HPV tests on the market are only used to help screen for cervical cancer. There is no general test for men or women to check one’s overall “HPV status,” nor is there an HPV test to find HPV on the genitals or in the mouth or throat. But HPV usually goes away on its own, without causing health problems. So an HPV infection that is found today will most likely not be there a year or two from now.
Sometimes it’s hard to know if you have HPV. Genital warts are growths on your skin that look like tiny bumps. Although genital warts are usually seen on, around, or inside your vagina or anus, they may be small and hard to see. They may be raised or flat, small or large. There can be only one wart or more than one in the same area. Warts can be pink or flesh-colored, red or brown. Some bumps grow together and look like a cauliflower. And you may not have any symptoms such as pain or bleeding.
An abnormal Pap test is often the first sign of a HPV infection. This is why it is important to start Pap tests by the time you are 21 years old. You should start earlier if you have special risks such as problems with your immune system or if you start sexual activities very early (13-15).
Human Papillomavirus – treatment
There is no cure for HPV as well as no HPV treatment. Many people who are infected with HPV likely do not realize it. However, often your body can fight off the virus on its own. It is thought that, once you are infected with one strain of HPV, your body becomes immune to it. It is entirely possible, though, to be infected with more than one strain. Those that develop genital warts will need or want genital warts treatment. This can be done through medication or by burning the warts off.
Treatments for genital warts range from acid medicines, to creams, to laser therapy. The treatment will remove visible warts and unwanted symptoms such as itchiness. The type of treatment your doctor recommends will depend on the number, location and size of the warts and the cost and side effects of the different treatments.
Human Papillomavirus – complications
Generally, those infected with HPV, especially low-risk HPV, will experience no complications aside from the possibility of genital warts, which can recur. However, those infected with an HPV strain that is considered to be “high-risk” are at a significantly increased risk of developing cervical cancer or some other type of cancer including vulvar cancer, anal cancer, or cancer of the penis. High-risk strains of HPV are responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer.
Women who have genital warts during pregnancy may notice that their warts grow quicker and larger during their pregnancy. Having an outbreak during your pregnancy, and especially when you deliver, can cause problems. It is possible to pass the warts on to your child during a vaginal birth, which then develops in the throat (known as laryngeal papillomatosis). This can be life threatening to your child.
Human Papillomavirus – risk factors
Women and men are equally at risk of catching HPV although men have a slightly lower chance of actually developing genital warts. Individuals in their early 20’s tend to be the most at risk of contracting the virus. However, because HPV is so common, you do not need to have a lot of sexual partner’s to come into contact with the virus.
You are at greater risk of getting HPV if:
- You had sexual contact at an early age.
- Either you or your sexual partners have had many different sexual partners at any time.
- You or any of your sexual partners have had a history of sexually transmitted diseases.
- Any of your sexual partners did not wear a condom.
Human Papillomavirus – prevention
- Completely abstaining from sex or being in a mutually monogamous relationship with someone who has tested free of the virus are the best ways to avoid genital warts.
- Using condoms consistently and properly every time you have sex may reduce your risk of contracting the virus but there is evidence to suggest that condoms are not very reliable at offering protection against the virus. Additionally, condoms cannot provide any protection if you come into direct contact with genital warts. If you or your partner are having an outbreak of genital warts, it is best to avoid all sexual contact until the warts have completely disappeared.
- Vaccines can protect males and females against some of the most common types of HPV. These vaccines are given in three shots. It is important to get all three doses to get the best protection. The vaccines are most effective when given before a person’s first sexual contact, when he or she could be exposed to HPV.
- Two vaccines (Cervarix and Gardasil) are available to protect females against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. One of these vaccines (Gardasil) also protects against most genital warts. Both vaccines are recommended for 11 and 12 year-old girls, and for females 13 through 26 years of age, who did not get any or all of the shots when they were younger. These vaccines can also be given to girls as young as 9 years of age. It is recommended that females get the same vaccine brand for all three doses, whenever possible. The HPV vaccine is given in a series of 3 shots over 6 months. The first shot is given at a time of your choice. The second shot should be given two months after the first shot, and the third shot should be given about six months after the first one.
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