Human Papilloma Virus (HPV): The Basics
Human papillomavirus (or HPV) is an infectious disease that is capable of making the human body produce warts (growths that appear on the skin or mucous membranes of the body). There are many types of HPV (more than 100), which may cause warts to grow in different areas of the body. Some genital types of HPV are known to cause cervical cancer in women. Medical practitioners have also observed connections between certain types of cancer and HPV.
What Are the Causes and Symptoms of HPV?
Generally, the immune system of a healthy person is capable of repelling HPV before it starts causing warts.
If the virus does produce warts, they vary according to the HPV type:
- Genital warts. They mostly appear on the vulva in women and on the penis in men, but they can also grow in the vicinity of the anus in both sexes. Typically, genital warts don’t cause any pain or other discomfort, although some patients complain about the warts itching.
- Common warts. These warts usually grow on the hands, palms or fingers, and often do not cause any symptoms. However, they are also known to cause pain or be very susceptible to physical damage, which sometimes results in bleeding.
- Flat warts. They are usually almost level with the skin, but a bit darker. Flat warts can grow anywhere, but they typically appear on the face in children, on the legs in women and in facial hair areas in men.
- Plantar warts. They tend to appear on the feet, so they often cause pain or discomfort. They are rather hard and feel like small balls of tissue.
HPV is most commonly transmitted through punctured skin contact with the skin of an infected person. Genital HPV can be contracted during sexual intercourse, while some HPV types that cause warts in the mouth or throat can be contracted during oral sex. Warts are highly contagious, and HPV is easily transmitted through them.
If a woman is pregnant and has HPV, the treatment is put off until she has delivered the baby. Sometimes, when warts get too big, they can complicate the birth process. A connection between HPV in a mother and noncancerous growth in a child’s larynx has also been observed.
You face a higher risk of contracting HPV if you are exposed to one or more of the following factors:
- A large number of sexual partners. If you frequently change your sexual partners, you are more likely to contract HPV. Your chances of being infected also increase if you are not the first partner for your sexual partner.
- Young age. Generally, children tend to be more susceptible to common warts, while teenagers and young adults are more prone to genital warts.
- Weakened immune system. The Immune system can be weakened by HIV or AIDS, as well as special drugs that suppress the immune system after an organ transplantation operation.
- Punctured skin. Skin is a unique organ that protects the organism from many possible intrusions, but only as long as it is whole. Cuts and other damage to the skin make it vulnerable to viruses and bacteria, particularly to HPV.
You are also more likely to contract HPV if you have unprotected contact with surfaces that were exposed to HPV before, such as swimming pools, public showers or toilets.
HPV: Diagnosis and Treatment
A physical exam is often enough to diagnose HPV. However, genital warts are sometimes not visible or easily noticeable. In such cases, further tests might be necessary.
They could include the following:
- Acetic acid test. During this test, a vinegar solution is applied to the genital area to determine the presence of genital warts. If there are any, the solution will turn them white.
- Pap test. The doctor collects a sample of cells from a patient’s vagina, which is analyzed is a specialized This test can help diagnose potential HPV-caused cancer, but the results are not always precise.
- DNA test. A sample of cells is collected from a patient’s cervix so that it can be further analyzed for virus DNA. This test allows medical practitioners to establish the presence of the HPV types that could lead to cancer with a great deal of precision. This test is often recommended for women who are older than thirty, along with pap test.
In addition, your healthcare provider might ask you questions about your medical history and sexual life. He or she will likely to enquire whether you have engaged in unprotected sex and what other notable medical conditions and states you had experienced before the appointment.
Treating HPV only makes the warts go away, but the virus remains in the patient’s blood for the rest of their life. Sometimes, the warts disappear themselves, especially in children. If that doesn’t happen, warts can be treated with special medications. They are mostly applied locally, and their effect varies, from burning the warts off to destroying them on the cellular level. Some medicines can also help the immune system fight HPV. It is important to only take prescribed pharmaceuticals, as experiments with medicines can have rather unpleasant complications. For instance, applying creams or gels meant to be used on common warts to the genital area could lead to allergic reactions, itching, and skin rashes.
Some people try so-called “home remedies” for HPV, but the effectiveness of such treatments has not been scientifically proved. On the contrary, home remedies can be harmful to the body. Thus, it is advisable to consult a doctor before applying any of them.
If the warts appear unaffected by medications, surgical procedures can be performed to remove them. Warts can be frozen (cryosurgery), burned (electrocautery) or cut off. Alternatively, your healthcare provider might recommend interferon injections or treating the warts with a laser.
Since HPV can never be destroyed completely once it gets into the body, the best way of dealing with it is through prevention. What can you do to protect yourself from various HPV types?
- Common warts. Since this HPV type is transferred very easily, it is hard to prevent this infection. If you have already found common warts on your body, be sure not to touch them and not to bite your nails, as that will facilitate their spread.
- Plantar warts. If you go to public swimming pools or use locker rooms at a gym or pool, don’t walk barefoot. Wear shoes or light sandals, so that the risk of contracting HPV is minimized.
- Genital warts. The HPV type that causes genital warts is usually transmitted through sexual contact. Thus, it is advisable to always use latex condoms for sexual activities, which significantly reduce the risk of HPV transmission. You can also benefit from minimizing the number of your sexual partners, as well as having a mutually monogamous sexual relationship with your partner. If you both get tested before you decide to stop having sex with other people, and the results of your tests are negative, you can be sure that you have done everything you could to protect yourself from genital HPV.
It is important for women to undergo pap tests on a regular basis to determine whether they are at risk for cervical cancer. Sometimes, genital HPV doesn’t produce any warts, but the virus still slowly develops inside the body, so it is highly recommended to monitor the situation. Women aged between 20 and 65 are advised to have a pap test every three years, or every five years if they combine a Pap test with an HPV DNA test. Women who are older than 65 can stop taking Pap tests if they have had three tests in a row with normal results.
Vaccination against HPV is advisable for any sexually active person. It can be done starting at the age of nine. The vaccine is usually delivered in three shots with certain stretches of time between them. It is crucial that the vaccine is administered before one becomes sexually active, as it can yield the best results only before the organism is exposed to HPV. A vaccine for cervical cancer is available, too, but it won’t be able to provide protection from genital warts.
We also recommend to get more information about HPV on the healthline.com: http://www.healthline.com/health/human-papillomavirus-infection