HPV Infection Risks for Pregnant Women

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is transmitted more than any other sexually transmitted infection in America. About 80% of all sexually active Americans will suffer an HPV infection at least once in their lifetimes.

Fortunately, most HPV-infected people never develop any symptoms from the virus. Of the 150+ HPV strains, only around 40 cause conditions like genital warts and cancer. Genital warts will usually go away eventually, but cancer will not.

High-risk HPV strains could potentially cause cervical cancer, vaginal cancer, penile cancer, vulval cancer, and anal cancer. To protect yourself from contracting a high-risk HPV infection and developing HPV-related cancer, you need to get vaccinated as early as possible. The vaccine is the best protection against high-risk HPV strains.

Pregnant women should not take the HPV vaccine unless approved by their doctor. Since HPV rarely causes pregnancy complications for women, an HPV infection during pregnancy is less risky than taking an HPV vaccine during pregnancy.

Does HPV Cause Symptoms for Pregnant Women?

A pregnancy typically causes a woman’s hormonal levels to fluctuate. She may also have more vaginal discharge than usual. When a pregnant woman has an HPV infection, abnormal hormone levels and increased vaginal discharge can cause genital warts to grow faster.

Not all HPV-infected pregnant women develop genital warts. However, they could develop cancerous cervical cells if their abnormal cell growth is not detected and treated in time. A cancerous cervix could cause severe symptoms like bloody vaginal discharge, abnormal vaginal bleeding, and pain during sexual intercourse.

Consult your doctor about testing and treatment for your HPV symptoms. They can advise you on the best course of action to reduce the growth of genital warts, abnormal cells, and cancerous cells.

How a Pregnant Woman Can Get Tested for HPV

The average licensed gynecologist does not administer HPV tests to pregnant women without visible signs of an infection. A gynecologist will typically conduct a routine pap smear (cervical cancer screening) on the pregnant woman by extracting a small sample of her cervical cells to look for growth abnormalities. The cervical cell sample is evaluated under a microscope in a laboratory.

If the test results indicate the presence of abnormal or precancerous cells in the cervix, the gynecologist may diagnose you with having HPV. Afterward, the gynecologist may want to give you an HPV test to determine which HPV strain has infected you and caused your cervical cell growth abnormalities. This HPV test is typically reserved for women over 30.

HPV Treatments for Pregnant Women

No cure exists for HPV infections. There is not even a treatment for targeting the HPV infection directly.

Fortunately, in most cases, HPV does not adversely affect a baby in her mother’s womb. Even if an HPV-infected pregnant woman develops warts on a specific region of her body, she does not need treatment for the warts unless they become uncomfortable or grow too big. In that case, her gynecologist or primary care physician can remove them for her.

The four primary methods for removing warts are laser therapy, cryotherapy (freezing off the warts), electrocauterization, or surgery. The doctor will suggest the best wart removal method based on the mother’s current health condition. But if a pregnant mother decides to leave her HPV warts as-is, they should not affect her pregnancy or delivery.

The worst-case scenario is having large genital warts blocking the birth canal or causing bleeding during the delivery. If the doctor determines the warts are causing too many problems for the traditional delivery, they may recommend a cesarean delivery instead.

Post-Delivery HPV Treatments for New Mothers

Doctors usually conduct pap tests on HPV-infected pregnant women to determine if they have precancerous cervical cells. If these cells are detected in a pregnant woman, her doctor will typically wait until she delivers her baby before administering treatment to slow down the precancerous cell growth.

The post-delivery HPV treatments could include cryosurgery, cone biopsy, or a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP). Similar treatment options are offered to all HPV-infected women with precancerous cervical cell growth.

Extra Safety Tips 

  • A new mother with HPV can still breastfeed her baby. It is rare for the mother’s milk to infect her baby, but it is possible. Talk to your doctor for more information about this.
  • Try to get the HPV vaccine before getting pregnant. That is another reason health professionals recommend the HPV vaccine for young females aged 11 to 26. Getting vaccinated early offers superior protection against high-risk HPV infections, including after pregnancy.
  • Girls 11 to 15 should get two doses of the HPV vaccine (the second one about 6 to 12 months following the initial dose).
  • Girls 15 to 26 (or any woman with a weak immune system) should get three doses of the HPV vaccine.