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.
There are two conditions that are caused by HPV:
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.
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.