Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common group of viruses. Nearly everyone will get HPV at some point in their lives.
HPV does not normally cause any symptoms and most people do not realise that they it. HPV is usually no cause for concern, but some types are considered high risk as they can progress to cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is the most common type of HPV-related cancer. Getting vaccinated against HPV (if you are not yet sexually active) and receiving regular pap smears can help prevent getting cervical cancer.
What Kinds Of HPV Do You Get?
There are over 100 types of HPV with the majority of these being harmless.
Some strains cause warts on your hands, feet or face. These are not STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and can include:
- Flat warts
- Plantar warts
- Common warts
- Periungal and subungual warts
About 30 HPV strains can affect your genitals, including your vulva, vagina, cervix, penis and scrotum, as well as your rectum and anus. These are considered STIs (sexually transmitted infections).
What Symptoms Does HPV Cause?
HPV that affects your genitals usually does not cause symptoms. The most common sign of the virus is the appearance of warts in your genital area. These warts are rough, cauliflower-like lumps that grow on your skin. They can appear weeks, months or even years after you were initially infected with the HPV virus. Genital warts are contagious but harmless.
High-risk forms of HPV usually do not cause symptoms until they have already progressed to cancer.
How Do I Get Sexually Transmitted HPV?
HPV is highly contagious as it is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact - no body fluids need to be exchanged. Many types of HPV affect the mouth, throat or genital area and are easy to catch.
You can get genital HPV from:
- any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area
- vaginal, anal or oral sex
- sharing sex toys
Does HPV Affect Women And Men Differently?
Anyone can become infected with HPV if they have unprotected sex or close skin-to-skin genital contact with a partner who has the virus. The virus, however, affects women and men quite differently.
HPV poses the greatest risk to women because high-risk HPV can progress to cervical cancer if it is not timeously treated. Pap smears and HPV tests can identify pre-cancerous cell changes early to prevent cancer of the cervix.
HPV poses fewer health risks to men. When HPV does occur in men it is usually in the form of genital warts although cancers of the penis do rarely occur.
What Tests Are Used To Diagnose HPV?
An HPV infection is usually diagnosed during a routine pap smear test. This test screens for the presence of abnormal cells and HPV in your cervix.
Other tests that might also be performed include:
HPV tests can detect high-risk strains of the virus that can lead to cervical cancer if left untreated.
Your healthcare provider may refer you for a colposcopy if your pap smear shows signs of abnormal cells or if you tested positive for HPV. During this procedure, a colposcope magnifies your cervix allowing the doctor to view abnormal cells and perform a biopsy if necessary.
A Visual Inspection With Acetic Acid (VIA)
In areas where resources are not available, a VIA test might be performed. During this test, a vinegar-based solution is applied to your cervix. The vinegar solution changes the colour of abnormal cells, which normally turn white.
How is HPV Treated?
It is not possible to get rid of the HPV virus. Treatment is normally limited to removing any visible warts on your genitals and abnormal cervical cells that require treatment.
Treatments may include:
- Cryosurgery: This involves freezing warts or destroying abnormal cells with liquid nitrogen.
- Prescription Creams: Medicated cream can be applied directly to warts to destroy them.
- Trichloroacetic Acid (TCA): Applying a chemical treatment that burns off warts.
- Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP): This procedure uses a special wire loop to remove warts or abnormal cells on your cervix.
- Electrocautery: This procedure burns warts off with an electrical current.
- Laser Therapy: This procedure uses intense light to destroy warts or any abnormal cells.
- Cold Knife Cone Biopsy (Conization): This procedure removes a cone-shaped piece of cervical tissue that contains abnormal cells.
Human Papilloma Virus, In A Nutshell
HPV is a highly contagious group of viruses, with nearly everyone encountering it at some point in their lives. It presents in over 100 types, with most causing no harm or symptoms. However, about 30 strains, primarily transmitted sexually, can have significant health impacts, particularly on women due to the risk of cervical cancer.
Vaccinations and regular screening, such as pap smears and HPV tests, are crucial preventive measures for cervical cancer. While treatments do not eliminate the HPV virus itself, they effectively manage its manifestations like genital warts and abnormal cervical cells. Despite how common it is, awareness and understanding of HPV remain essential to mitigate its potential health risks.