HPV is one of the most common forms of sexually transmitted infection, so much so that almost all men and women who are sexually active are likely to contract it at some time in their lives. There are a number of different kinds of HPV, a different virus to HSV (the herpes virus) and HIV.
Individuals can contract HPV by having anal, oral or vaginal sex with someone already infected with the virus, though it is most common for infection to occur during anal or vaginal sex. A person infected with the virus may have no symptoms or signs of the infection but can still transmit it to their sexual partner. HPV can be contracted by anyone who is sexually active, even if they are entirely monogamous. Symptoms may also take years to develop, making it difficult to ascertain when the infection actually took place.
In the great majority of cases of HPV, the person infected may never be aware that they have even contracted the virus, as there are no symptoms and the infection may eventually simply clear up of its own accord. However, health problems can develop if the HPV virus does not simply disappear. These health problems can include the likes of genital warts and even cancer. Genital warts generally manifest themselves as one small bump, or even as a group of bumps around the area of the genitals. These bumps can be large or small, flat, raised or even appear in a cauliflower-like shape. Warts can generally be diagnosed by an inspection from your healthcare provider.
HPV can cause a number of cancers including:
- Cervical cancer
- Cancer of the anus
- Cancer of the vulva
- Cancer of the penis
- Cancer of the vagina
- Throat cancer (including the tonsils and the base of the tongue)
It may be years or even decades before cancer develops as a consequence of the HPV infection. The kind of HPV that causes cancer is not the same as the kind that results in genital warts. There is no method of determining which people who have contracted the HPV virus may develop health problems such as cancer. Individuals that suffer from a weak immune system, including people with HIV and AIDS, are more likely to develop health problems due to the infection, as they have less of an ability to fight it off.
There are a number of ways in which people can cut down on their chances of being infected with the HPV virus. The best method is to have the HPV vaccination, which is effective and safe, and prevents against diseases such as cancer when given in the appropriate age groups. Three shots are given over a six month period, and it is vital to complete the course of treatment for the vaccine to be effective. Women between the ages of 21 and 65 should attend regular routine screenings for cervical cancer. Those who are sexually active should restrict themselves to a monogamous relationship, and ensure that their partner wears a condom, although condoms are not as effective against the HPV virus as they are against some other STIs. Females and males should be vaccinated at ages 11 or 12; if not, it is recommended that women up to the age of 26 should be given a catch-up vaccine, as should those suffering with a compromised immune system.
Diagnosis and treatment
There are a few methods of testing for HPV infection. Self collection kits for vaginal specimens can be used at home, and have proven to be just as effective as samples taken by a physician. Since most people never suffer symptoms, they are never aware that they have even been infected; some women may find out however, as HPV can sometimes result in a cervical cancer screening producing an abnormal Pap test result. Pregnant women should continue to undergo routine screenings for cervical cancer, and may develop abnormal changes to the cells in the cervix if they are infected with HPV. Genital warts can be easily treated by your doctor, and cervical pre-cancer and other cancers related to HPV are easier to treat when caught early.