Human Papiloma Virus infection

Are you hesitant to make an appointment with your health care provider for the wart-like growth on your vulva? Or are you simply dismissing it off as another common wart similar to those seen on the hands and feet?

Don’t neglect it as the genital warts may be due to infection with the HPV virus. Also, certain strains of HPV are known to cause cancer of the cervix (lower part of the uterus that extends into the vagina) in women. You are also at risk of HPV infection (even in the absence of symptoms) if you have had multiple sexual partners/ have had unprotected sex with a partner with genital warts.

Give a thought; if you are sexually active, or thinking about becoming sexually active, your best protection is to learn the facts about how HPV is spread and how to prevent getting it.

HPV causes STD

HPV is the short form for human papillomavirus that is one of the most common sexually transmitted viral diseases. Some strains of HPV are the causative agents for the common warts seen on hands and feet while others cause warts in the throat or genital areas. Few of the high risk HPV strains are of particular concern as far as chances of progression to cancer are concerned.

Your body may fight off HPV naturally, and then the infected cells can go back to being normal. However, if you are one of the few in whom the body does not fight off HPV, there are visible changes in the form of genital warts (single or multiple painless cauliflower like growths) or cancerous changes.

While warts appear within weeks or months of contracting the infection, cancer often takes years to develop. In some rare cases, it can cause warts in the throat that is called as RRP/recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.

While low risk HPV causes only genital warts, high risk HPV can lead to cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva and the anus in women and cancer of the anus and penis in men. Certain strains of HPV can cause changes in the cells of the cervix which if left untreated can progress to cervical cancer.

Your risk of cervical cancer is increased if you smoke, have many children, start sex life before age 18, and have multiple sex partners.

If you are a man infected with HPV, genital warts are seen to appear on your penis, on the scrotum, in or around the anus, or on the groin. Diagnosing the condition may be difficult unless there are external visible genital warts.

You do not need any treatment unless you develop symptoms and the infection also does not place you at a higher risk for cancer as seen in women.

In most of the cases, the HPV is removed by the immune system before the warts begin to appear. They vary in appearance depending on the variety of HPV. A few symptoms of HPV virus are:

  • Genital warts
  • Common warts
  • Plantar warts
  • Plat warts

HPV infection is primarily transmitted by sexual intimacy. Penetration is not required to transmit the virus from one person to another. Your risk of the infection increases as your number of sexual partners increase.

You can get HPV, if have skin to skin contact during vaginal, anal or oral sex with a partner who already has HPV even if he/she has no signs or symptoms of the disease.

If you are pregnant and have genital HPV virus then you may pass it on to your baby during vaginal delivery in which case your child can develop RRP. Presence of warts in the partner makes the condition more contagious.

There are no blood tests for diagnosis of HPV.

The Pap test (sometimes called a Pap smear) is one of the tests you may have to undergo for detection of abnormal cells in the cervix that may lead to cancer, infection, and inflammation.

You need to have a Pap test atleast once every 3 years, beginning about 3 years after you begin to have sexual intercourse, but no later than age 21. If your test shows abnormal cells your physician may suggest further testing, such as colposcopy and biopsy of any abnormal areas. (In colposcopy a lighted magnifying instrument called a colposcope is used to examine the vagina and cervix. Biopsy involves removal of a small piece of tissue for diagnosis.)

Follow up with the HPV test is recommended for cervical cancer screening if you are over 30 years of age and show an ambiguous Pap test report. The test can detect high-risk types of HPV even before there are any conclusive visible changes to the cervical cells. However there are no currently approved tests to detect HPV infection in men.

If you test positive for HPV it does not mean that you will need treatment, atleast not immediately. While close monitoring is advised, only a small number of women infected with HPV will develop cellular changes that need to be treated.

There is no medical cure for HPV infection. Your physician can help in treatment of the lesions and warts caused by the infection. However do not try to treat the warts yourself, especially with the over the counter chemicals as they can cause irritation of the skin.

Your physician can suggest a few treatments for HPV to remove the warts by methods that include cryosurgery (freezing that destroys tissue), LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure, the removal of tissue using a hot wire loop), and conventional surgery. Your physician may also prescribe certain drugs available for the treatment of external genital warts.

  • The only sure way to prevent HPV is to avoid sexual activity. While this may not be a practical solution, you can definitely lower your chances of getting HPV by being in relationship with one partner/ limiting the number of sex partners.
  • Use of the condom can lower the risk of HPV related diseases, but the virus is seen to infect areas that are not covered by a condom.
  • Other ways to lower your chances of getting HPV is by vaccines available for men and women against most common types of HPV. It is important that you take all the three doses of the vaccine for best protection. They are most effective if you take it before your first sexual contact.
  • If you are a woman seeking protection against HPV that can cause cervical cancer you can choose from two vaccines; Cervarix and Gardasil. The latter one is also seen to protect against most genital warts. They are recommended for 11 or 12 year old girls and for females between the ages of 13 and 26 years of age who have not been vaccinated earlier. The vaccine consists of a series of three shots, with shot two coming 2 months after the first, and shot three coming 6 months after the first.
  • Gardasil vaccine is also recommended for boys and men between the ages of 9 and 26 years of age for protection against most genital warts. However, efficacy of these vaccines in men and women older than 26 years of age is yet to be validated. If you already have HPV, the vaccine does not treat or cure, but can still help protect against other types of HPV infections (other than those that cause cervical cancer; for example, the vaccine can help protect against the HPV that causes genital warts).