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Human Papillomavirus (HPV): What You Need To Know To Protect Yourself
HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world. There are over 40 identified strains of HPV that can infect both males and females in both the genitals and oral regions.
HPV only infects the skin and mucous membranes of the body and commonly causes zero symptoms in those infected.
How HPV is Spread
HPV is most commonly spread and contracted through sexual relations. It can be spread through either sexual intercourse, any genital-to-genital contact, and oral-to-genital contact. Both men and women get contract HPV as well as same-sex couples. HPV does not discriminate on age, gender, or sexual preference, so anyone can get HPV.
It is estimated that about 20 million people in the U.S. alone currently have HPV, with another 6 million becoming infected each year. Since it is so common, it is estimated that at some point during their lives, at least half of people will get HPV.
The problem with HPV is that many people can go years being infected with the virus before they know they have it, while others never know they have the virus. When someone does not know they have the virus, it makes it easier to pass it from partner to partner as someone that does not know they have it are less likely to protect against transmission of HPV.
HPV is almost never passed from mother to child through the birth canal, but it is still possible. Women who are known to have HPV sometimes elect or are recommended to have a cesarean section to avoid spreading the virus to the baby. JORRP, or juvenile-onset recurrent respiratory papillomatosis is a condition that can develop in babies that contract HPV from a mother through birth.
Signs and Symptoms of HPV
In majority of people with HPV there are no signs or symptoms to be reported. Since HPV rarely shows any signs or symptoms unless it causes a condition, it is hard to know if you have HPV.
The only reported sign of HPV is genital warts in patients that have certain strains. It is important to note that since there are over 40 strains, not all types of HPV cause genital warts and most go undetected.
HPV is a virus that generally naturally leaves the body within 2-5 years after a person contracts it. Since the immune system does eventually fight off the virus, there are many people who go without ever knowing they had the virus if it does not cause any other complications or diseases.
Complications and Diseases Caused By HPV
While HPV itself is harmless, it can cause many problems in the body, dependent upon the type of HPV you have. HPV works in the body to cause certain types of cancer as well as warts by causing the cells in the body to become abnormal.
When you have HPV, your body will try to fight off the virus, but sometimes will lose, causing visible changes such as warts, or causing cancer. These complications from HPV can happen in anyone with HPV, but people with weakened immune systems are more prone to get complications or have them develop faster.
HPV has recently been linked to being a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Warts and other abnormal cell growths caused by HPV can form on the lungs, larynx, and other portions of the respiratory system making it hard or impossible to breathe properly, and sometimes causing cancer.
Genital Warts and Oral Blisters
These are caused by specific strains of HPV and they are not the same strains that cause cancers. Genital warts and oral blisters, also known as herpes, do not cause cancer and will not develop into cancer. You can contract or spread wart causing HPV through sexual contact even if you do not show any signs or symptoms of having warts. Sometimes after you have contracted HPV, it can take months for the warts to appear.
If you suspect you have genital warts or herpes, you should visit a medical professional to be sure. There is no single appearance warts make, and they can vary in shape, texture, and size. These can be treated for pain, discomfort, and occurrence, but you still will have to wait for the virus to completely leave your body before you will have zero occurrences of warts.
If you choose not to treat the warts, they may go away and come back as they please, get worse, or stay the same.
There are certain strains of HPV that do cause cervical cancer in women. Cervical cancer is a serious condition that requires immediate treatment. Each year in the U.S. alone over 10,000 women get cervical cancer, with majority of them being attributed to HPV.
Often there are no early signs or symptoms of cervical cancer, and many women do not experience symptoms until the cancer is widespread or severely advanced.
Women should have a yearly vaginal exam to screen for cervical cancer for early detection, no matter how many sexual partners they have had. Early detection of abnormal cell changes on the cervix can allow for treatment before it ever turns into cervical cancer.
Possible signs of cervical cancer include:
- Abnormal bleeding, such as spotting when it is not time for a menstrual, out of the norm heavy bleeding, or bleeding that does not go away
- Pain or bleeding with intercourse
- Pain in the lower back, especially when lying flat on back
- Pain or discomfort when bent over
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Unexplained pain in the legs, back, or pelvic region
Women with cervical cancer may experience none or all of these symptoms. Since many women have no symptoms, it is imperative for them to have yearly exams.
HPV is known to cause other types of cancers in the body, especially in the genital area. These include cancers of the anus, vagina, vulva, and penis. People with HPV can also develop certain cancers in the throat and mouth.
Detection and Treatment for HPV
There is currently no way to detect or test for HPV. Currently the only way to know if a person has HPV is if they exhibit genital warts or oral warts, or if they develop a type of HPV-causing cancer.
Screenings are available for cervical cancer, but they are only able to detect if a woman already has cervical cancer or abnormal cells developing on the cervix.
There is no test available on the market to test for HPV in either men or women in the genitals or oral region.
There are also no treatments for the human papillomavirus. There are various treatments available for the conditions or diseases that HPV can cause, such as genital warts, cervical cancer, and other HPV-causing cancers.
Preventing Human Papillomavirus
The best way to avoid having any diseases or complication from HPV is to safeguard against contracting HPV in the first place.
Protection During Sex
Anyone who is choosing to be sexually active should always use protection in the form of a condom. Condoms can reduce the chance of contracting or transmitting HPV. In order for condoms to be effective they should be used each and every time a person has sex throughout the entire sexual episode. Condoms cannot completely protect against HPV, but it can lower your chances of getting it.
Few Sexual Partners
Another way to protect yourself is to only have sex with one partner at a time as well as only choosing a partner that has also had little to no other sexual partners. Since you cannot test for HPV and there is no way to know ahead of time if your partner has HPV, it is always best to abstain from sexual relations to completely avoid getting HPV.
There are also vaccines available to both females and males to protect against the most common strains of HPV. These vaccines are given in a batch of three and are stated to be most effective in preventing HPV when given between the ages of 11-12.
There are two vaccines available for women and girls. These are Gardasil and Cervarix. These two help to protect females against the most common strains known to cause cervical cancer, with Gardasil also protecting against most types of genital warts. Both vaccines are recommended for any female between the age of 11-26.
One vaccine, Gardasil, is available for men to help protect against anal cancers and genital warts. It is recommended for any males between the ages of 11-26.