Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the name of a group of viruses that affect the skin. There are over 100 different types of HPV. Many types can cause warts on the hands or feet. These types are rarely transmitted through sexual contact. There are about 30 different types that are transmitted through sex and are considered sexually transmitted infections (STI).
HPV is a very common virus. Experts estimate that 70% of sexually active people have had HPV. Most will never develop symptoms. Those with symptoms may notice external genital warts. These are growths or bumps that appear in and around the vagina, anus, cervix, penis, scrotum or groin. They may be raised or flat, single or multiple, small or large. Other symptoms may include itching, pain or bleeding. An abnormal pap test may be the first sign that HPV infection is present. This is called subclinical infection. Symptoms may appear within weeks of contact, but it may takes months or years for symptoms to develop. This makes it hard for you to know when you got the virus and from whom you got it.
HPV lives on the skin and is transmitted through skin to skin contact. Genital HPV can be passed during genital touching, vaginal and anal sex, and rarely through oral sex. People do not get genital warts by coming in contact with warts on the hands or the feet.
Some types of HPV are more serious than others. Low-risk types of HPV are not associated with cancer. They may cause external warts or noncancerous changes on the cervix. High-risk types do not cause warts or other symptoms a person can see or feel but they can cause cell changes on the cervix that can lead to cervical cancer. 98% of a cervical cancer is caused by high risk HPV infection. High risk HPV is also linked to cancer of the anus, vulva in women and penis in men.
Cervical changes caused by HPV can be picked up on a pap smear. It is important that all women who have been sexually active get regular pap smears. If HPV is detected, further evaluation is needed to determine if the infection is causing precancerous changes. This is called colposcopy. It will also require more frequent pap smears to monitor the infection until it has resolved.
There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of HPV infection.
- Don’t have sex. This includes genital touching.
- Have sex with only one partner that only has sex with you. The more partners you or your partner has the higher your risk of getting HPV. Most people with HPV infection do not have symptoms and can unknowingly pass on the virus.
- Use condoms during sex. Condoms can reduce your risk, especially for getting an infection on your cervix. Condoms can not completely eliminate the risk if the skin not covered by the condom contains the virus.
- Don’t Smoke. Smoking lowers your body’s immunity to infection and nicotine can cause the cervix to become more susceptible to changes from the virus.
If you notice any symptoms or have a partner diagnosed with HPV, it is important that you get checked for infection. External warts can be treated. Some treatments are self-applied and others must be done by a trained medical provider. The type of treatment chosen will depend on the size, location and number of warts, patient preference, cost, convenience, adverse effects, and a patient’s experience with warts. Treating genital warts takes time. It may take several treatments before the warts are gone.
None of the treatments are a cure for HPV. The virus can remain in nearby skin even after treatment. Warts can return months to years after treatment. However, once the warts have cleared, most people with genital warts never have any come back. Some experts believe that a person’s own healthy immune system helps to suppress or possibly clear the virus over time.
Neighborhood Health Partners providers are trained in the diagnosis and treatment for HPV. Self applied and low cost provider applied treatments are available for external warts. Pap smears and low cost colposcopy are available for the diagnosis and treatment of HPV related changes on the cervix. Many women may qualify for a program that will provide this screening at no cost. Call our office at 348-9766 or toll free 1-877-449-7422 to get checked for HPV infection.
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