Everything You Need To Know About Human Papillomavirus Infection

What is Human Papilloma Virus Infection?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a viral infection that is transmitted between humans through skin-to-skin contact. There are over 100 types of HPV, more than 40 of which are transmitted through sexual contact and can affect your genitals, mouth or throat.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection.

It is so common that most sexually active people achieve some level of diversity at some point, even if they have several sexual partners.

Some cases of genital HPV infection may not cause any health problems. However, some types of HPV can lead to the development of genital warts and even cancers of the cervix, anus, and throat.

HPV Causes

The virus that causes HPV infection is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Most people get genital HPV infection through direct sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

Since HPV is a skin-to-skin infection, sexual intercourse is not necessary for transmission to occur.

Many people have HPV and don’t know it, which means that even if your partner doesn’t have any symptoms, you can still have the condition. It’s also possible to have more than one type of HPV.

In rare cases, a mother with HPV can transmit the virus to her baby during birth. When this happens, the child may develop a condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, which develops HPV-related warts in the throat or airways.

HPV Symptoms

Most of the time, HPV infection does not cause any obvious symptoms or health problems.

In fact, 90 percent (9 out of 10) HPV infections clear up on their own within two years, according to the CDC. However, because the virus is still in a person’s body during this time, that person can unknowingly transmit HPV.

When the virus does not go away on its own, it can cause serious health problems. These include genital warts and warts in the throat (known as recurrent respiratory papillomatosis).

HPV can also cause cervical cancer and other cancers of the genitals, head, neck, and throat.

The types of HPV that cause warts are different from the types that cause cancer. So, having genital warts caused by HPV does not mean you will develop cancer.

Cancers caused by HPV usually show no symptoms until they reach the later stages of growth. Regular screenings can help diagnose HPV-related health problems earlier. This can improve appearance and increase chances of survival.

HPV in men

Many men infected with HPV have no symptoms, but some may develop genital warts. See your doctor if you notice any unusual lumps or lesions on your penis, scrotum, or anus.

Some types of HPV can cause penile, anal, and throat cancer in men. Some men, including men who have anal sex and men with weakened immune systems, may be at risk of developing HPV-related cancers.

The types of HPV that cause genital warts are not the same as those that cause cancer.

HPV in women

It is estimated that 80 percent of women will contract at least one type of HPV in their lifetime. As with men, many women who get HPV do not have any symptoms and the infection clears up without causing any health problems.

Some women may notice genital warts that can appear inside the vagina, in or around the anus, and on the cervix or vulva.

Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any unexplained swelling or growth in or around your genital area.

Some types of HPV can cause cervical cancer or cancers of the vagina, anus, or throat. Regular screening can help detect changes associated with cervical cancer in women. In addition, DNA tests on cervical cells can detect strains of HPV associated with genital cancers.

HPV Tests

HPV testing is different in men and women.

Women

Updated guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommend that women have their first Pap test or Pap smear at age 21, regardless of the onset of sexual activity.

Regular Pap tests help identify abnormal cells in women. These can signal cervical cancer or other HPV-related problems.

Women ages 21 to 29 should have a Pap test every three years. Women between the ages of 30 and 65 should do one of the following:

  • get a Pap test every three years
  • have an HPV test every five years; high-risk HPV (hrHPV) types will be screened
  • taking both tests together every five years; this is known as the common test

According to the USPSTF, stand-alone tests are preferred over the joint test.

If you are younger than 30 and your Pap results are abnormal, your doctor or gynecologist may also order an HPV test.

There are at least 14 types of HPV that can cause cancer. If you have one of these types, your doctor may want to monitor you for cervical changes.

You may need to have a more frequent Pap test. Your doctor may also order a follow-up procedure, such as a colposcopy.

Cervical changes that lead to cancer often take many years to develop, and HPV infections often go away on their own without causing cancer. You may want to follow a watchful waiting period rather than seek treatment for abnormal or precancerous cells.

men

It is important to note that the HPV DNA test is only available to diagnose HPV in women. There is currently no FDA-approved test for diagnosing HPV in men.

Routine screening for anal, throat, or penile cancer in men is not currently recommended, according to the CDC.

Some doctors may do an anal Pap test for men who are at high risk of developing anal cancer. This includes men who have anal sex and men with HIV.

HPV Treatments

Most cases of HPV go away on their own, so there is no cure for the infection itself. Instead, your doctor will likely ask you to come back for retesting in a year to see if the HPV infection persists and any cell changes develop that require further follow-up.

Genital warts can be treated with prescription medications, burning with an electric current, or freezing with liquid nitrogen. But getting rid of physical warts does not cure the virus itself, and warts may come back.

Precancerous cells can be removed in a short procedure performed in your doctor’s office. Cancers that develop from HPV can be treated with methods such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery. Sometimes more than one method can be used.

There are currently no medically supported natural treatments for HPV infection.

Routine screening for HPV and cervical cancer is important for identifying, monitoring and treating health problems that may result from HPV infection. Explore treatment options for HPV.

How Can We Get HPV?

Anyone who has sexual contact with the skin is at risk for HPV infection. Other factors that can put someone at an increased risk for HPV infection include:

  • increasing number of sexual partners
  • unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex
  • a weakened immune system
  • having a sexual partner who has HPV

If you are exposed to a high-risk HPV, certain factors can increase the chance of the infection continuing and developing into cancer:

  • a weakened immune system
  • having other sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and herpes simplex
  • chronic inflammation
  • having many children (cervical cancer)
  • using oral contraceptives for a long time (cervical cancer)
  • using tobacco products (mouth or throat cancer)
  • having anal sex (anal cancer)

HPV Prevention

The easiest way to prevent HPV is to use condoms and practice safe sex.

In addition, the Gardasil 9 vaccine is available for the prevention of genital warts and cancers caused by HPV. The vaccine may protect against nine types of HPV known to be associated with cancer or genital warts.

The CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for boys and girls ages 11 or 12. Two doses of the vaccine are given at least six months apart. Men and women ages 15 to 26 can also be vaccinated on a three-dose schedule.

In addition, people between the ages of 27 and 45 who have not previously been vaccinated for HPV are eligible for the Gardasil 9 vaccine.

Make sure you have regular health checkups, scans, and Pap smears to prevent HPV-related health problems.

HPV and Pregnancy

Getting HPV does not reduce your chances of getting pregnant. If you are pregnant and have HPV, you may want to delay treatment until after delivery. However, in some cases, HPV infection can cause complications.

Hormonal changes during pregnancy can cause genital warts to grow, and in some cases, these warts may bleed. If genital warts are common, they can complicate a vaginal delivery.

When genital warts block the birth canal, a cesarean section may be required.

In rare cases, a woman with HPV can pass it on to her baby. When this happens, a rare but serious condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis can occur. In this condition, children develop HPV-related growths in their airways.

Cervical changes can also occur during pregnancy, so you should plan to continue routine screening for cervical cancer and HPV while pregnant.

HPV Facts and Statistics

Here are some additional facts and statistics about HPV infection:

  • The CDC estimates that 79 million Americans have HPV. Most of these people are in their late teens or early 20s.
  • It is estimated that approximately 14 million employees will contract new HPV each year.
  • In the United States, HPV causes over 33,000 cancers in men and women each year.
  • It is estimated that 95 percent of anal cancers are caused by HPV infection. Most of these cases are caused by one type of HPV: HPV 16.
  • Two types of HPV – HPV 16 and 18 – account for at least 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. Vaccination can protect against contracting this species.
  • The first HPV vaccine was recommended in 2006. Since then, a 64 percent decrease in vaccine-coated HPV strains has been observed in teenage girls in the United States.

Healthline. Everything you Need to Know About Human Papillomavirus Infection. 2020

References

  • Genital HPV infection fact sheet. (2017).
  • HPV and men fact sheet. (2016).
  • HPV and cancer. (2015).
  • human papillomavirus. (2019).
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). (2019).
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer. (2019).
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV): Questions and answers. (2018).
  • Inside knowledge about gynecologic cancer. (2018).
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. (2018). HPV infection.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. (2018). HPV testing.
  • Pap and HPV testing. (2014).
  • US Food and Drug Administration. (2018). FDA approves expanded use of Gardasil 9 to include individuals 27 through 45 years old [Press release].
  • US Preventive Services Task Force. (2018). Screening for cervical cancer: US Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement.

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