Genital human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, is a sexually transmitted viral infection. There are more than 40 different kinds of HPV that can infect the genitalia, mouth and throats of men and women. For some people, the immune system will remove the infection over the course of two years, but, for others, HPV may lead to genital warts or cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina and anus.
More than 20 million people in the United States are infected with HPV, with an estimated six million people becoming infected each year. It is estimated that at least half of all sexually active people will contract HPV at some point in their lives.
Causes of HPV
The HPV virus is contracted through the following forms of contact:
- Vaginal sex
- Anal sex
- Oral sex
- Genital-to-genital contact
Fortunately, many types of HPV can be successfully treated, while others can be managed to prevent complications such as cervical cancer.
Symptoms of HPV
Symptoms of HPV infection vary depending on the type of HPV and the severity of the infection. Many patients do not experience symptoms at all. In some cases, symptoms may include:
- Genital warts
- Cervical cancer
- Cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis or anus
- Cancer of the back of the throat
Diagnosis of HPV
Because many types of HPV do not present any symptoms, regular testing is recommended to screen for cervical cancer and other complications of HPV. There is no standard test to detect HPV viruses. It is important for women to undergo regular Pap tests to detect certain abnormalities that may indicate an HPV infection. If abnormalities are found, a DNA test, which can test for 13 high-risk types of HPV, may be performed.
If warts or lesions appear in the genital area, medical attention and testing for HPV.
Complications of HPV
Although most cases of HPV will clear up on their own, with no side effects or complications, certain types of HPV can develop into cervical, penile or anal cancer. These diseases are most treatable when detected early, making regular screening important.
Treatment of HPV
While there is no cure for HPV, treatment for symptoms such as genital warts, cervical changes and cervical cancer is available. HPV treatment will depend on the diagnosis and the severity of the infection.
Genital warts may be treated with:
- Laser treatment or surgery to remove the warts
Treatment will remove the genital warts but it does not cure the infection. Patients can still transmit the HPV infection to a sexual partner.
Other types of lesions may be treated with surgery, laser treatments or cryotherapy to prevent them from developing into cervical cancer.
Prevention of HPV
There are currently two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, available to protect against high-risk types of HPV. Gardasil, the first HPV vaccine, targets the types of HPV that cause genital warts. Cervarix helps protect women from cervical cancer. These vaccines are not effective for all types of HPV, so the following recommendations should be followed to reduce the risk of contracting HPV:
- Abstain from sexual activity
- Be in a monogamous relationship
- Use condoms, but note that HPV can infect areas surrounding condom