The human papillomavirus, also known as HPV for short, affects millions of people each year, though many never know that they are affected. There have been more than 100 different strains of HPV identified, but only a handful of those strains cause problems. Here readers can learn all the information that they need to understand HPV.
HPV is a group of over 150 related viruses, and is one of the most common types of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the United States. At any given time there are roughly 20 million Americans infected with HPV, and each year another 6 million become infected, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are approximately 40 different types that can infect genitals as well as the mouth and throat. Most people who have HPV don’t know that they have it. HPV is not the same as herpes or HIV, although they are often mistaken for one another. It can be classified as low-risk or high-risk, where low-risk causes less serious diseases and conditions, like genital warts, while high-risk HPV can lead to something more serious like cancers of the cervix.
HPV’s Effects On The Body
There are two conditions that are caused by HPV:
- Genital warts: Genital warts are caused by types 6 and 11 of the various HPV strains and these are considered low-risk strains. Genital warts affect the genitals as well as the anus if a person was infected through anal sex. The warts may appear within a few weeks of infection, or they may take months or years to occur. In some cases they never appear at all. Treatment is available for genital warts, although it is highly individualized and treatment is prescribed by a doctor.
- Cancer: The most serious condition caused by HPV is cancer. Nearly all cervical cancer is caused by some type of HPV virus, and both low and high risk strains can cause cancer, however 70 percent of all cervical cancer is caused by types 16 and 18. HPV can cause other types of genital and anal cancers as well. Cancer is treatable, but the prognosis of the patient depends greatly on how far the cancer has progressed.
HPV infections themselves present little to no symptoms. The symptoms that someone with HPV experiences are associated with the problems that they cause such as genital warts or cancer, although these conditions themselves often go unnoticed with no symptoms.
Genital warts are characterized by a bump or group of bumps in the genital area. The bump can be large or small, raised, flat or have a cauliflower-like appearance. Warts can appear at any time after infection, or they may never appear at all. Without treatment they may go away, remain unchanged, or they could increase in size and number. One thing that they will never do is turn into cancer. But they can be spread to others.
Cancer typically has no signs or symptoms until it is in advanced stages and very difficult to treat. The good news is that by getting regular pap smears women can decrease their risk of death from the cancer. Men should also get a yearly physical exam as well.
Another condition that is caused by HPV, though it is much rarer than the others previously mentioned, is something called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, or RRP. This condition causes warts to grow in the throat and the upper respiratory tract. These can be quite serious, as they can block the airway causing a hoarse voice and problems breathing.
There is no treatment for HPV itself, but there is treatment available for the conditions it causes.
- Visible genital warts can be treated by the patient at home with prescribed medication, removed by a physician professionally, or left alone to see if they disappear on their own. There isn’t any single treatment that is better than the other; it’s just a matter of preference.
- The cancers caused by HPV are easier to treat the earlier they are discovered. By getting regular physical exams, cancers of the genitals and anus can be caught early and treated in a number of ways. A doctor will decide the best way to treat the cancer, based on each individual situation.
- RPP can be treated with medication and surgery. Treatment may need to be repeated over several years to ensure that all warts are removed.
The easiest way to treat HPV is to prevent its spread. The best way to prevent the spread of HPV is to engage in safe sex practices. People should only engage in sex when they are in a committed, mutually monogamous relationship. Those who are not involved in a relationship of this nature should always use a condom every time they have sex. Consistent, proper use of condoms can prevent most cases of HPV from spreading.
There are also vaccines available that have shown to be effective at preventing someone from contracting certain types of HPV, those most often associated with genital warts and cancer. These vaccines have been shown to be highly effective, but they must be administered to girls between certain ages only. Boys can receive one of the vaccines as well if they or their parents desire.