All You Need to Know About HPV
Human papillomavirus, a.k.a. HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world.
Human papillomavirus, otherwise known as HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world. It has received a lot of attention in recent years because several of HPV’s most common strains are the main causes of cervical cancer in women.
What is HPV?
HPV is a virus with more than 200 strains, most of which are responsible for common, harmless warts typically found on hands and feet. About 40 strains, however, are sexually transmitted. Of these, about 14 have been linked to cancer, particularly strains HPV 16 and HPV 18, which together account for 80% of precancerous cervical lesions and cervical cancer cases.
Other variations of the virus, especially strains 6 and 11, manifest in warts on the skin or mucal membranes of the mouth, throat, vulva, vagina, cervix, rectum, or anus in women, depending on the area exposed, and of the mouth, throat, penis, scrotum, rectum, or anus, in men. Depending on the area of exposure, these HPV strains may more rarely manifest in respiratory papillomatosis, a disease characterized by benign growths in the air passages between the nose and mouth and lungs.
How is HPV transmitted?
HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact, not bodily fluid. Therefore, genital HPV can be spread from someone who is infected to their partner, even if the two have not exchanged fluids or engaged in penetrative sex. HPV can also be spread through contact with a surface that has previously come in contact with a wart — for instance, an improperly cleaned and shared sex toy.
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How prevalent is HPV? Is there a way to avoid it?
“Most sexually active women and men will be infected at some point in their lives and some may be repeatedly infected,” according to the World Health Organization. So, while reliable population-wide estimates for India specifically are difficult to come by, it’s safe to say HPV is not unusual.
But there’s good news: there is absolutely a way to avoid several of the most dangerous strains of HPV. The HPV vaccine provides protection against the following strains of HPV: HPV 6 and 11, which according to Planned Parenthood are responsible for 90% of all genital warts cases; HPV 16 and 18, which cause 80% of cervical cancer cases; and HPV 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58 that are related to cervical, anal, vulvar, vaginal and penile cancers. While there is technically not enough evidence, yet, that the vaccine prevents penile and throat cancers, “recent studies suggest that these vaccines may be effective for preventing these cancers as well,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
Male condoms are always a good idea and you’re definitely less likely to contract HPV if you use one. But even condoms are not 100% reliable in preventing HPV transfer since they do not fully cover the skin of the genital area.
Tell me more about the HPV vaccine.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the HPV vaccine is recommended for both children and adults of any gender, aged 9 to 45. The vaccine is most effective when administered before sexual activity begins; it’s typically advised for children aged 9 to 14, who receive the vaccine in two phases, six months apart.
For anyone older than 14, the vaccine is given in three injections across six months.
Up to age 45, anyone can get the vaccine, even people who are already sexually active, even people who have already had an HPV infection. While it’s less effective for this cohort, research shows it still offers protection against developing an HPV infection.
What are the symptoms of HPV?
Most people who contract most strains of HPV will never know they have it; their immune systems will fight off before the virus manifests. That’s why regular check-ups and STI tests after every new partner are a good idea, and an HPV vaccine an even better one.
However, warts on the skin or mucal membranes of the mouth, throat, vulva, vagina, cervix, rectum, anus, penis, or scrotum are sure signs of several common strains of HPV and should be a prompt to consult a doctor. or into respiratory papillomatosis.
How do you get diagnosed with HPV?
HPV diagnosis is tricky, as many people are unaware they have the infection and so do not seek treatment. When genital warts do become apparent, however, a doctor can diagnose HPV by a visual examination. According to the Mayo Clinic, a vinegar (acetic acid) solution test can aid doctors in diagnosing HPV when warts are not visible; the solution, when applied to HPV-infected skin, turns white.
But many people never display symptoms of HPV and thus their HPV infections are only discovered after-the-fact by DNA tests and/or Pap smears, which look not for active HPV, but for previous HPV infections and/or precancerous cervical lesions caused by earlier HPV infections respectively.
What is the treatment for HPV?
For most people, their immune system fights off HPV with no problem; however, there are certain medications a doctor can prescribe if HPV manifests as genital warts. Treatment for respiratory papillomatosis varies, but usually involves surgical excision of the benign tumors as well as other therapies.
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Anything else I should know about HPV?
Precancerous cervical lesions and/or cervical cancer may not develop at all, following an HPV infection. If they do, it may be as many as 20 or more years after the original HPV infection. If you haven’t received an HPV vaccine, are under age 45, and are sexually active, it’s worth considering the investment in your health. Also worth considering? Annual Pap smears to make sure there are no HPV-inspired precancerous lesions in your cervix. Even the vaccine is no replacement for regular cervical check-ups.
HPV is the most common STI in the world, which means many, many average people contract it. If you find you have HPV, congrats: you’re average. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
This is part of our series on sexually transmitted infections.
Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.