Fast facts about HPV
Did you know...
It is estimated that 70-80% of all adults will have a HPV infection at some point in their lives.
There are over 100 strains of HPV. About 40 of these can affect the genital area. 14 strains (known as high risk strains) can potentially lead to cancer. Low risk strains can cause genital warts.
Did you know...
Repeated infections over a prolonged period of time with high risk strains of HPV can lead to abnormal cell changes. If undetected and untreated, these cell changes might then become cancerous.
A healthy young person's body can generally clear the virus on its own over time. However, as we get older, that ability is diminished. That's why it is important to test and monitor for HPV!
How might HPV be contracted?
HPV can be transmitted through any sexual contact, including handjobs, blowjobs, and penetrative sex.
HPV can also be spread with just simple skin-to-skin contact. This includes any form of non-penetrative sex, such as body rubbing.
Sharing sex toys can also spread the infection.
How is HPV detected?
Most of the time, HPV does not exhibit any symptoms, so it's difficult to tell if an infection has occurred. For people under 30, the body often clears HPV on its own too.
High-risk HPV infections generally do not show any visible symptoms. Persistent high-risk HPV infections can eventually develop into pre-cancer or cancer. However, until then there are usually no signs of infection.
Low-risk strains of HPV can result in genital warts, which are small growths that can appear on the skin. Genital warts can take weeks and months to develop. Some symptoms of low-risk HPV infection include:
Itching around the genitals
Discomfort during sex
Bleeding from sex or shaving
Uh oh... What can go wrong with HPV?
Scientists have discovered that infections with high risk strains of the HPV virus can potentially lead to different types of cancer. The most well understood and researched HPV related cancer is cervical cancer in people with vaginas, but HPV can affect men as well.
The types of cancers that can be caused by HPV are:
- Cervical cancer
- Oropharyngeal cancer (throat/oral)
- Anal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
- Penile cancer
- Vaginal cancer
How is HPV treated?
There is no direct treatment for HPV. Treatment for HPV generally treats for the symptoms.
Genital warts can go away over time. They can also be treated to minimize appearance or reduce pain. There are several options to treat for genital warts. These include:
- Topical treatments that are applied directly to the wart
- Electrocautery, where a doctor burns off a wart with electricity
- Cryosurgery, where a doctor freezes the wart with liquid nitrogen
- Laser removal
- Cutting of the wart
Identifying the best course of treatment should happen as part of a conversation with a physician.
While having high-risk HPV increases the risk of developing cancer, it does not mean that cancer will form. After testing positive for high-risk HPV, typically a physician will follow up with additional tests.
A common follow up test is a pap test. During the pap test, a healthcare professional collects cells from inside the cervix. The cells are then observed under a microscope to look for any abnormalities. Abnormalities could indicate pre-cancer or cancer.
While there is no direct treatment for HPV, regular monitoring for high-risk HPV or abnormal pap results can help prevent cancer.
How can HPV be prevented?
There are several ways HPV can be slowed down from spreading:
Safer sex practices such as condoms, dental dams, and not sharing sex toys can help reduce the chances of exposure to HPV. However, since HPV can be spread through skin-to-skin contact, it can be very difficult to fully protect oneself against HPV.
Most HPV strains do not show any symptoms, and the only way to find out is to test for it. In particular, high-risk strains of HPV should be tested for in order to prevent cancer from developing. Monitoring HPV status is a helpful method of preventing further complications from developing.
HPV vaccines are available to protect against certain high and low-risk strains of HPV. The strains that the vaccine immunizes against are some of the more common HPV strains. If a person is already sexually active, the vaccine might help. Discuss with your doctor if you are a suitable candidate for vaccination.