There are several questions with concern to many different health issues. Human papillomavirus is no exception. Many have questions about the topic and the OB-GYN Women’s Centre of Lakewood Ranch would like to help answer those questions about HPV for you here.
What is HPV (human papillomavirus)?
Human papillomavirus is a virus that can affect various parts of your body. With that being said, there are over 100 types of HPV, including strains that can cause warts on your hands, feet, face, etc. Approximately 30 strains can affect your genitals, including your vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, and scrotum. They can also affect your rectum and anus.
When HPV affects your genitals, it is considered as a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that gets passed through skin-to-skin contact.
There are strains that are high-risk and can lead to cancers, such as cervical cancer. Early detection and treatment are your best defense to prevent that from happening.
How common is HPV?
It happens to be the most common STI in the United States. For example, the CDC estimated 43 million HPV infections in 2018. In that same year, there were 13 million new infections. It is so common that almost every sexually active person will get it at some point in their lives if they don’t get vaccinated. Most never know they have the virus.
What are the symptoms of HPV?
HPV that affects the genital area doesn’t usually cause symptoms. However, the most common sign of the virus is genital warts. Genital warts are rough, cauliflower-like lumps that grow on the skin. They can appear weeks, months, or even years after you’ve been infected with HPV. Like all forms of HPV, genital warts are contagious.
Are all warts HPV?
Yes. No one wants warts but the strains that cause warts are harmless. However, the type of strains that can progress to cancer doesn’t cause warts.
How is HPV related to cervical cancer?
HPV strains (usually types 16 and 18) can cause changes in the cells of your cervix, a condition called cervical dysplasia. When left untreated, cervical dysplasia can advance to cervical cancer. Another reason to make sure you are getting regular Pap tests.
Who does HPV affect?
Anyone can become infected with HPV if they have sex or close skin-to-skin genital contact with a partner that has the virus.
HPV in women and people assigned female at birth are at a greater risk of HPV progressing into cervical cancer if left untreated.
HPV in men and people assigned male at birth have fewer health risks. It can cause genital warts but most infections will generally clear on their own. However, HPV can lead to cancers of your penis, anus, head, and neck, but these cancers are uncommon.
How do you get HPV?
Genital HPV spreads with skin-to-skin contact during intercourse. You can get infected if your genitals (vulva, vagina, cervix, or penis and scrotum, as well as the rectum and anus) come into contact with these same body parts on an infected partner.
How easily transmitted is HPV?
It is very easily transmitted. HPV is highly contagious and is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. No body fluids need to be exchanged for it to be transmitted.
How is it diagnosed?
Healthcare providers will be able to diagnose genital warts just by looking. The high-risk forms of HPV don’t cause symptoms, so you’ll likely learn about an infection through a routine Pap smear or HPV test.
Other procedures include a colposcopy. Generally, a colposcopy is ordered by your provider if your Pap smear indicates abnormal cells or if you tested positive for HPV. Another way to test is during a visual inspection with acetic acid that helps to identify abnormal cells when the solution turns those cells white.
How is it treated?
No treatment can rid your body of the virus. Visible warts on your genitals and abnormal cells in your cervix can be removed. Those treatments include:
- Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP)
- Laser Therapy
- Cold Knife Cone Biopsy (conization)
- Prescription Cream
- Trichloroacetic Acid
Of those infected with high-risk HPV, only a small percentage of them will develop abnormal cervical cells that require treatment.
Can it be prevented?
The only true way to prevent it is to abstain from sex. You can however reduce your risk by doing the following:
- Get the HPV vaccine
- Get screened and tested regularly
- Practice safe sex by using condoms and dental dams
- Protect your partner(s). Communicate that you have HPV so they can get tested as well
Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about the precautions you should take.
Is it curable?
There is no cure. Most infections are cleared within a year or two.
Is it contagious for life?
As long as you have the virus, you are contagious, whether you have symptoms or not. For example, your genital warts may have disappeared, however, you can still spread the HPV that caused them if the virus is still in your body. After your immune system has eliminated the virus you will no longer be contagious.
HPV prevention is vital to fighting cervical cancer. Keeping up to date with your Well Woman Exams is also essential to your health. From puberty to menopause, gynecological visits are an important part of living a healthy life. At OB-GYN Women’s Centre of Lakewood Ranch, we provide comprehensive, personalized gynecological care for each woman.