HPV, otherwise known as the human papillomavirus, is a sexually transmitted infection that should not be confused with HIV or HSV (herpes). There are currently nearly 80 million people in the United States alone who are living with HPV, many of whom are in their teens and early twenties.
While there are about 30 different types that affect the genitals, including the vagina, penis, vulva, cervix, and scrotum, there are another 70 additional forms of HPV that can affect other areas of the body. Of the approximate 100 different types of HPV, infectious disease doctors consider 14 of them to be “high risk” which can lead to cervical or gynecologic cancers.
Approximately 80% of sexually active Americans will be diagnosed with HPV at some point in their lives. And a significant percentage may not even be aware that they have it.
How do you get HPV?
While there are many myths surrounding HPV, the fact is that anyone who has sex can get HPV. Even if you only have a single sexual partner. You can get HPV through vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse with anyone who already has the virus in their system. The infected person does not even need to be exhibiting symptoms of HPV to spread the virus to their partner.
Furthermore, many people who have HPV never experience any symptoms, or those symptoms may appear many months or even years after they initially contract the virus.
What are the possible health consequences of HPV?
When certain types of the HPV virus are left untreated, they can cause all sorts of health problems, including genital warts and even several forms of cancer. Genital warts usually look like small, round, discolored bumps on or near the genital area. They can be white, brown, or reddish in color, or a mixture of all three. They can be small or large, flat or raised, round or even cauliflower-shaped. If you think you might have HPV, it is always best to see a doctor immediately.
Does HPV cause cancer?
Yes, HPV can cause a variety of gynecologic cancers, with cervical cancer being the most common. In fact, two strains of the virus, HPV 16 and HPV 18, are known to cause more than 70% of all cervical cancer diagnoses.
Other types of HPV-related cancers include cancer of the vagina, penis, anus, vulva, and several oropharyngeal cancers, related to the throat, tongue, tonsils, nose, pharynx, larynx (voice box), trachea, and esophagus. However, the types of HPV that typically produce genital warts are not the same types that tend to cause cancer, which is why it is so important that people who are sexually active practice prevention measures.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Women will not develop cervical cancer immediately after contracting HPV. Some women may not develop cancer at all, but if they do It can be years or even decades after first contracting HPV. However, sexually active women should be aware that there are almost no signs of cervical cancer before it's in an advanced (or late) stage. For this reason, PAP tests are critical. They can detect HPV and pre-cancerous cells before they develop into cancer.
Signs of possible early-stage cervical cancer include:
- Irregular blood spotting
- Light bleeding between menstruation cycles
- Bleeding during intercourse
- Increased or irregular vaginal discharge (sometimes of an unusual odor)
Signs of possible advanced-stage cervical cancer include:
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Persistent back, pelvis, or leg pain
- Vaginal discomfort
- Foul-smelling vaginal discharge
- Swelling of the leg or legs
- Other severe symptoms may present themselves, depending on which organs the HPV is infecting
Can you be tested for HPV?
While there are currently no CDC-approved HPV tests for men, there are two ways in which healthcare professionals can detect the HPV virus in women:
- An HPV test
- A PAP test
Many times, the physician will perform them both at the same time. This procedure is called a co-test.
The HPV test helps to identify certain cervical infections that are commonly associated with HPV. The Pap test is useful in identifying abnormal cells in the cervix. If any abnormal cells found, the physician will usually send them to a laboratory for further testing to determine if they are pre-cancerous or cancerous. Of course, the abnormalities may not be cancerous at all, or they could be related to some other condition entirely. Most physical recommend a co-test every five years, or a pap test every three years.
How can you prevent HPV infection?
To prevent your chances of becoming infected with the HPV virus, there are many things that you can do. The most foolproof is to get vaccinated. There are at least three different vaccines readily available for protection against HPV 16 and HPV 18. Another vaccine is thought to prevent at least five additional types of HPV that are known to cause about 20% of non-cervical cancers.
HPV vaccines work best when doctors administer them well before your possible exposure to the virus. Therefore, the medical community recommends everyone – man or woman – be vaccinated before their very first sexual encounter.
The World Health Organization even recommends having a vaccination between the ages of 9 and 14 years old. However, having a vaccination does not mean that you are automatically immune from being diagnosed with cervical cancer in the future. The medical community highly recommends routine screening until the age of 65.
Other safe sex practices can also reduce your chances of contracting HPV. The use of condoms every time you have sex can significantly reduce risks while not fully protecting you from obtaining the virus.
How do you know if you have HPV?
While most people living with HPV never even know that they have it and rarely develop health problems, some people discover they have the virus only because of the appearance of genital warts.
There is currently only one HPV test that has been approved by the FDA. This HPV test involves a cervical swap; therefore, it can only be used on individuals with a cervix. Some women discover they have HPV only after their gynecologist provides them abnormal results from an HPV test.
Sadly, others find out after developing cervical, oropharyngeal, or gynecologic cancers – which is why regular screening is so important. Whether you are a man or a woman, always make an appointment with a physician the moment you notice any strange bumps or growths on or near your genital areas.