What is HPV?
HPV — human papillomavirus — is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., with over 75 million people being infected, most of them young adults.
There are more than 150 strains of HPV. Many of them go away on their own. However, some of them can cause health problems including cancer.
HPV is most commonly spread via vaginal or anal sex. HPV can affect anyone who is sexually active, even if you have only one partner. Symptoms can develop years after sex with an infected partner.
Approximately 80% of females will contract HPV at some point in their life.
Signs of HPV
Many strains of HPV have no signs or symptoms. However, some strains can cause genital warts or cancer.
Genital warts are small, flesh-colored bumps that usually occur in the genital area. The bumps may be flat or bumpy and shaped like cauliflower.
HPV can cause the following types of cancer in women:
Signs of cervical cancer include:
- Vaginal bleeding (not during normal period)
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- Painful sex
- General pelvic pain
Some people with vulvar cancer may have no symptoms, depending on the type. Those who do have symptoms may experience:
- Changes to the skin
- Spotting (light vaginal bleeding between periods)
- Sores that will not go away
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
Signs of anal cancer include:
Signs of throat cancer include:
Types of HPV
HPV strains are identified by number. Types 6 and 11 cause 90% of genital warts cases. Twelve strains can cause cancer, but strains 16 and 18 cause the most cases.
Causes of HPV
HPV is only caused by sexual contact with someone who has the virus. It is contagious even if you don’t have any symptoms.
To lower your risk of getting HPV, you can use safer sex barriers like condoms during sex. However, be aware that HPV can spread through skin contact, and condoms don't cover 100% of the areas that may touch during sex. Another way to lower your risk of getting HPV is to be in a mutually monogamous relationship.
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Diagnosis/Tests for HPV
An HPV test looks for HPV DNA in cervical cellsy. However, the CDC only recommends this test for women over age 30y. A Pap smear looks for cell changes in the cervix that may be caused by HPV.
If you are between ages 21 and 29, you should get a Pap smear every three years. People over age 30 should get one every three years, or an HPV test every five years. Women over age 30 can also choose to get a pap smear plus an HPV test every five yearsy.Doctors diagnose genital warts by examining them visually.
Treatments for HPV
Most cases of HPV resolve on their own with no symptoms present and no treatment needed.
Genital warts often require no treatment and may go away on their own. If they persist or they bother you, a doctor can remove them surgically or freeze them off. Topical prescription medications may make warts go away faster.
If doctors discover pre-cancerous cells in a Pap smear, they may have you wait six months and then get another test to see whether the cells are still abnormal. Doctors may also perform a colposcopy — a procedure where they look more closely at your cervix to diagnose you. If the abnormal cells are severe enough, doctors will do a procedure to remove them before they turn into cancer.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
American Cancer Society: "Signs and Symptoms of Penile Cancer."
American Cancer Society: "Signs and Symptoms of Vulvar Cancers and Pre-Cancers."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet."
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: "Anal Cancer."
Johns Hopkins Medicine: "My Pap Test Was Abnormal: Now What?"
MedlinePlus: "Genital Warts."
MedlinePlus: "Throat Cancer."
National Health Service: "Genital warts."
NYU Langone Health: "Types of Human Papillomavirus."
Office on Women’s Health: "Human papillomavirus."
Office on Women's Health: "Pap and HPV tests."
The New Zealand HPV Project: "Strains of Human Papillomavirus (HPV)."
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