All You Want to Know About the Causes, Symptoms, Types, and Prevention of HPV
HPV is a very common condition, although most people may not know it. It affects several dozen million people in the United States alone, not to mention other places across the world. Yet, many of those who have the infection are not aware of it.
What is this infection and how do you know whether you have it? We will discuss in this article practically everything you need to know regarding HPV.
HPV and Types
HPV is an abbreviation for human papillomavirus, a very common sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is mostly harmless but can lead to health issues in some cases. The “papilloma” in the name of the virus is in reference to its capability to produce a kind of wart or benign lump.
The organism is usually present in epithelial cells present on the surface of the skin. You will also find these cells on the head or surface of the penis, vagina, vulva, cervix, or anus. HPV is attracted to moist, mucous membranes of the body.
This virus doesn’t just refer to a specific one. It comes in numerous strains. The estimates of the different types range from more than 100 to over 200.
Only around 40 HPV types are believed to lead to infections. Each of the strains has its own specific number.
HPV is currently the most widespread STI in the United States. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts the number of those infected in America at roughly 79 million. Also, around 14 million people get a new infection every year.
Causes and Risk Factors
People usually get infected with HPV through sexual intercourse. You get it when you have vaginal or anal sex with someone already infected with the virus. Infection is also possible via oral sex.
People who have HPV don’t always show symptoms. This increases the risk of their sexual partners becoming infected. Any sexually active person can expect to have this infection, even if you have just a single partner.
What is, perhaps, scarier is that just skin-to-skin contact is enough to get infected with HPV.
There are certain factors that increase your risk of getting this virus. They include:
- Having multiple sex partners or a partner who has or has had multiple sex partners
- Open, sore, or damaged skin
- Poor immunity
- Being an adolescent or a young adult
In addition, your risk of contracting the infection rises when you become exposed to surfaces or mediums containing the virus, such as a public swimming pool.
What are the Symptoms of HPV Infection?
If you intend to look out for symptoms to tell whether you have HPV or not, you may never know when you have it. The reason for this is that some infected persons show no signs at all. As a result, many people who have the virus don’t know they have it. A good thing you should know is that HPV can go away on its own without any intervention in many people, and without causing any health problems as well.
The most common symptoms, if any are present, are warts, especially genital warts. They appear as a bump or group of bumps in the vagina, on the vulva, on the penis or scrotum, or around the anus. These genital warts are typically shaped like cauliflower and often itch.
According to the CDC, around one in every 100 adults in America that is sexually active has genital warts at some point in time.
HPV can give rise to common warts which usually appear as rough bumps on your fingers, hands, or elbow. It could also result in plantar warts on the feet and heels.
HPV can potentially lead to cancers. It can promote cancerous growth in areas of the body such as the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, and anus. The virus can also contribute to the development of cancers of the throat, tongue, and tonsils – also referred to as oropharyngeal cancer, which results from oral sex.
More than 12,000 men and 19,000 women in the U.S. are estimated by the CDC to have cancers with a link to HPV each year.
People who have recurring infections by some kinds of HPV are at a greater risk of developing cancer. These can result in precancerous lesions which, if not treated correctly, can lead to tumor growth.
It is worth mentioning, though, that the strains of HPV that cause warts aren’t usually the same as those that lead to cancer development. The ones that do support tumor growth also don’t lead to the disorder immediately after you get them. It may take several years after the infection, even decades, before cancer develops.
Low-Risk HPV vs. High-Risk HPV
The risk levels of the different strains of the human papillomavirus are never the same. Some are more worrisome to have than others. Therefore, the virus is often classified into two broad categories, namely: low-risk HPV and high-risk HPV.
The kinds of HPV that don’t cause serious health issues are categorized as low-risk HPV strains. They may not produce any symptoms at all and will usually vanish on their own once your body builds immunity against them.
But some low-risk strains can cause genital warts. Two strains, HPV 6 and 11, are believed to be responsible for around 90 percent of genital wart cases. These bumps typically appear weeks or months after having sex with an infected person.
Low-risk HPV strains may bring about mild, abnormal changes in the cervix’s surface cells (cervical dysplasia). But they rarely progress into cancer.
These are the types of HPV that carry a significant risk of serious health issues. They lead to severe cervical dysplasia and certain cancers mentioned above.
There are about a dozen strains, at least, that fall into this category. The two most notable ones are HPV 16 and 18. These are believed to be responsible for most cases of cancer linked to this virus. Among other high-risk strains of HPV are HPV types 31, 33, 45, and 52 as well.
However, you should know that while these high-risk strains can cause cancer, not everyone will develop cancer if infected.
Sadly, there is no standard test that can help diagnose an HPV infection. Many people only become aware they have HPV after noticing warts in their genital areas. Others only find out when they have developed more serious health issues, such as cancer.
However, tests used for cervical cancer screening (Pap tests) can help detect the virus on time. But they are strictly for women and not for men or adolescents.
Regular Pap tests are important for every woman. They can help detect and treat high-risk HPV infections before they turn into cancer.
Pap Smears for Women
Pap smears can help reveal abnormal cell changes on the cervix, also known as cervical dysplasia. The degree of these abnormalities ranges from mild to serious. Pap smear results often fall into any of the following categories:
Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASCUS) – This indicates results that straddle the line between normal and abnormal.
Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance-cannot exclude HSIL (ASC-H) – This also suggests borderline results, but they may possibly be more serious.
High-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (HSIL) – Pap smears indicating significant abnormal cell changes on the cervix.
Low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (LSIL) – Results having this description suggests mild abnormal changes on the cervix.
While HPV is the most common reason for an abnormal Pap smear result, experts say that it is not the only possible reason. Other infections may also cause this.
Women whose results indicate HSIL are advised to undergo a colposcopy. This allows closer examination of your cervix and possibly getting cell samples for a biopsy.
You should also consider having another Pap smear six months later if your results returned mild abnormal changes. Alternatively, you may just have a colposcopy.
Women whose ages fall within the range of 21 to 29 should get a Pap test every three years until the age of 65, according to the Mayo Clinic. Those who are 30 years or older can have the test every five years if done together with the HPV DNA test.
Is HPV Infection Treatable?
Unfortunately, HPV has no cure. Genital warts can disappear or become undetectable without any treatment. But if they persist, your doctor can help you get rid of them. You can remove genital warts with prescription drugs.
Cancers resulting from HPV infections are also treatable. The important thing for success is to commence treatment very early. This is why it is important to undergo regular screening tests to identify issues that can possibly lead to cancer.
How Do You Prevent HPV Infection?
Some experts say the surest way to be free of it is by avoiding sexual activity entirely. You probably wonder how possible or easy that will be.
The use of a condom may not help in preventing infection but can reduce your chances of getting it. That will only succeed in protecting the genitals, but not the surrounding skin.
If you want to better protect yourself against this virus, you should limit the number of your sexual partners. It also helps to ensure that your partner has no other or has had only a few sex partners before you.
Vaccination and periodic screening for cancer may also help prevent HPV issues.
There are vaccines that can help keep you safe from certain strains of this virus. These vaccines offer a great way of protecting against HPV infection and possible complications. They include Gardasil, Gardasil-9, and Cervarix.
These are intended mainly for young people from the age of 9 to 26 years. The CDC advised in 2016 that children aged 11 to 12 years old should get two doses of the HPV vaccine, within a six-month interval.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has now approved the use of Gardasil-9 in persons (both male and female) whose ages fall within the range of 9 to 45 years. This vaccine has been found to protect against genital warts and cervical cancer.
Researchers continue to work on developing more effective vaccines.
We already mentioned the importance of periodic screening for cancer. Experts advise that women who are 25 to 65 years of age should get screened periodically for cervical cancer. They should have regular Pap tests to detect any abnormality in time.
You may not be aware you have an HPV infection. This is because you might not notice anything unusual. If you see symptoms, genital warts are most likely to be noticed. They affect a significant number of sexually active persons at any given time.
Warts do go away or may no longer be noticeable after some time. Many people who had them never knew they did because of this. But you should consider speaking with your doctor immediately after you start feeling pain or getting embarrassed by these bumps.
Do take note that certain strains of HPV can give rise to precancerous lesions. If care is not taken on time, they can lead to the development of cancer. This makes vaccination and periodic screening even more important.