What is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a viral infection that spreads from one person to another through skin-to-skin contact. Of more than 100 varieties of HPV, only 40 of them can be transmitted sexually, impacting the genital, oral, and throat areas.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, it’s so prevalent that most sexually active people will get infected at some point in their lives, regardless of the number of sexual partners they have.
Many cases of genital HPV infections will not lead to any complications, but others can lead to the growth of genital warts or even cancers of the cervix, anus, or throat. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand the transmission, symptoms, and prevention of HPV to maintain good sexual health.
In this article, we will cover everything there is to know about HPV, including its causes, symptoms, treatments, and prevention.
HPV gets transmitted through sexual contacts, such as vaginal, anal, and oral sex. However, it is important to note that intercourse is not necessary for transmission to occur as it can be contracted through skin-to-skin contact.
Additionally, many people are carriers of the virus without realizing it. To top it off, HPV can still spread even if the partner does not have any symptoms. It is also possible for a person to be infected with multiple strains of HPV.
In rare cases, mothers who have HPV can transmit the virus to their newborns during delivery, which causes a condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis. Consequently, warts develop inside the child’s throat and airways.
Typically, HPV does not cause noticeable symptoms or health problems. According to the CDC, 90% of HPV infections go away on their own within two years. Nevertheless, the virus remains in the person’s body.
In cases where the virus does not go away, it can lead to serious health issues, such as genital warts and recurrent respiratory papillomatosis. Additionally, HPV can also cause cancers in the cervix, head, neck, throat, and genital areas. It is worth noting that the types of HPV that cause warts are different from those that cause cancer.
Therefore, having genital warts caused by HPV does not necessarily mean that a person will develop cancer. Cancers caused by HPV often do not show symptoms until later stages, which is why regular screenings are crucial to diagnose HPV-related health problems early on and improve chances of survival.
HPV in Men
Many men who contract HPV infection have no symptoms. However, they may develop genital warts. Make sure to consult with your doctor if you see any unusual growths on the genital area. A few strains of HPV may be responsible for anal, penile, and HPV-related throat cancer in men. Additionally, there are some situations where men will be at risk for developing these cancers, including those who engage in anal sex and those with a compromised immune system.
The strains of HPV that cause genital warts aren’t the same as those that cause cancer.
HPV in Women
Approximately 80% of women will contract at least one type of HPV during their lifetime. Similar to men, a majority of women with HPV have no symptoms, and the infection resolves on its own. However, some women may develop genital warts, which can appear in the vagina, anus, cervix, or vulva. If you observe any bumps or growths around the penis, scrotum, or anus, consult with your doctor as soon as possible. Some strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer or cancers of the vagina, anus, and throat.
Regular screening and DNA tests on cervical cells can help detect these cancers in women.
Screening and testing for HPV are not the same for men and women.
Here is a breakdown of the latest guidelines:
Screening for Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is distinct for men and women. Women should undergo regular pap tests to detect abnormal cells that may indicate cervical cancer or HPV-related problems. According to the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), the first pap test for women should be at the age of 21, regardless of sexual activity.
For women between the ages of 21 to 29, a pap test is recommended every three years. As for women between the ages of 30 to 65, either a pap test every three years or an HPV test every five years is ideal. Alternatively, a combination of both every five years is good enough.
However, standalone tests are superior to co-testing. If the pap results are abnormal for women under the age of 30, an HPV test may also be necessary.
It is worth mentioning that there are at least 14 strains of HPV that can cause cancer. If a woman tests positive for one of these strains, her doctor may want to monitor her for cervical changes. In such cases, she may need to undergo pap tests more frequently and may also require a follow-up procedure like a colposcopy.
It is essential to note that there is currently no FDA-approved test available to diagnose HPV in men. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend routine screening HPV-related cancers in men. Your doctor may recommend an anal pap test for men with a high risk of anal cancer, such as those who engage in anal sex or have HIV.
The majority of HPV cases will heal spontaneously. With that said, we still do not have any cure for the infection. In this case, your doctor may ask you to come back for a follow-up exam in one year to check if the HPV infection still persists and if there are any cellular changes that require further attention.
We can treat genital warts by prescribing medications, electrical burning, or freezing with liquid nitrogen. However, removing warts does not cure the virus. In fact, warts will grow back in many cases.
For precancerous cells, a minor procedure may be enough to remove them. For cancerous lesions, we can use chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery to prevent further growth. In many cases, your doctor will use a combination of these therapies to treat the cancer.
There are no natural remedies that have solid medical research to treat HPV infections. Screening for HPV and cervical cancer is important in detecting, monitoring, and treating any complications that arise from HPV infections.
How Is HPV Transmitted?
People can contract HPV through sexual intercourse and skin-to-skin contact. There are also some risk factors that increase the risk of infection, including:
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex
- A weak immune system
- Having a sexual partner who has HPV
In cases of high-risk HPV infections, certain factors can increase the likelihood of severe infection, such as:
- A compromised immune system
- Having other STIs
- Chronic inflammation
- Having many children (for cervical cancer)
- Long-term use of oral contraceptives (for cervical cancer)
- The use of tobacco products (for mouth or throat cancer)
- Receiving anal sex (for anal cancer)
HPV prevention is possible through the use of condoms and engaging in safe sex. Another option is to get vaccinated with Gardasil 9, which provides protection against nine types of HPV that can lead to genital warts and cancers. Ideally, practice safe sex and get vaccinated.
The CDC recommends that 11-12-year-old boys and girls should get vaccinated with a two-dose schedule at least 6 months apart. Women and men aged 15-26 can also receive the vaccine on a three-dose schedule. You can strengthen your immune system by having a healthy diet, doing regular exercise, getting plenty of sleep, avoiding stress and complementing your lifestyle with nutrients and AHCC supplements and immune building multivitamins, such as HPD Rx ONE. Currently, individuals between the ages of 27-45 who have not previously received the HPV vaccine are eligible for the Gardasil 9 vaccine. To maintain good health, it is important to have regular health checkups, screenings, and Pap smears.
HPV and Pregnancy
Getting HPV does not affect a woman’s ability to become pregnant. However, HPV infection during pregnancy can result in certain complications.
Pregnancy-related hormonal changes may lead to an increase in the growth of genital warts, which can sometimes bleed and make vaginal delivery difficult. In severe cases, a C-section may be necessary if the genital warts obstruct the birth canal.
Furthermore, a mother with HPV can pass it on to her baby, resulting in a condition known as recurrent respiratory papillomatosis. It is vital for women to keep getting routine screenings for cervical cancer during pregnancy.
HPV Facts and Statistics
Here are some additional statistics about HPV infection:
- According to the CDC, around 79 million Americans have HPV. Most of these cases are reported in the late teens or early 20s.
- Every year, over 14 million new cases of HPV occur in the US.
- HPV causes over 33,000 cancers each year in both men and women.
- Approximately 95% of anal cancers are the result of HPV. HPV 16 is the leading strain that causes anal cancer.
- HPV 16 and 18 account for around 70% of cervical cancer cases. Luckily, we can prevent both strains with the vaccine.
- Since the introduction of the HPV vaccine in 2006, there has been a 64% decrease in vaccine-covered HPV strains among teenage girls in the US.