Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Most people who are sexually active will acquire HPV at some point in their lives without even knowing it! Learning more about this STI can help people make smart decisions about their sexual health.
1. What is HPV? Human Papillomavirus is a viral infection that can affect the dermis and mucous membranes. There are more than 100 types of the papillomavirus, 40 of which can affect the genital area of males and females. Most types do not cause any symptoms, however, some cause warts and can lead to certain cancers. The immune system works to destroy the virus, and 90% of cases resolve on their own within a couple years.
2. Who is at risk? Anyone who has been sexually active is at risk for contracting HPV. People with multiple sexual partners have a higher risk, although anyone who has had sex (even once) can get HPV. Those with weakened immune systems would also have a greater risk.
3. How is HPV transmitted? HPV is transmitted through oral sex and dermal (skin-to-skin) contact. A person who has never shown any symptoms and is unaware that they are carrying the HPV virus can unknowingly spread it to their sexual partner(s). Pregnant women can transmit the virus to their baby giving birth.
4. What are the symptoms of HPV? The most common symptom of HPV infection is genital warts. Some people may develop a rare form of the virus which causes warts on the throat, known as RRP, or Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis.
5. What other health problems are related to HPV? Some types of HPV affect changes in cellular structure and may lead to certain types of cancer, the most common being cervical cancer. Other cancers that can develop from certain types of HPV are vaginal, penile, anal, and oropharyngeal cancer.
6. Is there a test for HPV? There is no general test to screen everyone for HPV, however, many gynecologists will screen for HPV during a woman’s annual pelvic exam/pap test to detect any abnormal cells that might indicate cervical cancer. There are no FDA approved tests to detect HPV in the mouth or throat.
7. Can HPV be prevented? There are new vaccines available that are generally recommended during the pre-teen years for males and females. Sexually active people may get some protection by using a condom, however, as genital warts may be located on the skin on areas not covered by a condom, transmission of the virus is still possible. A person may lower their risk of contracting HPV by limiting their number of sexual partners, and choosing a partner who has had limited sexual partners. Abstinence is the best method of prevention.
8. How is HPV treated? There is no treatment for HPV itself, only the symptoms of it. Genital warts can be removed by a doctor surgically or with topical medications. While warts may go away on their own if left untreated, they can return after being removed. Some over the counter topical treatments are available as well. Cervical cancer and other HPV related cancers can be treated with early detection in most cases. Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis can be treated with surgery or medication, but may require multiple treatments.
9. How do I learn more? Due to the fact that HPV is the most common STI, there is a lot of information available on the subject. A browser search of HPV should provide many reliable, non-wiki (editable content) websites that will assist in learning more about HPV, as well as different prevention and treatment options currently available. Your trusted healthcare professional is your best resource for information.
While most people never even know they have or have had HPV, it can cause serious health issues in others. Sexual health should be discussed with your healthcare professional. Early detection of cancers and diseases caused by certain types of HPV is essential to increased treatment success and sexual wellness.