It is estimated that 75-85% of all sexually active people in the United States have HPV. Most people have no idea that they have it. For some women it causes abnormal pap smears. For other men and women it can cause genital warts. About 1 million new cases of genital warts are diagnosed each year. There are over 80 different strains of the virus and a person can be infected with more than one strain. HPV different from the virus that causes warts on the hands and feet.
HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, usually during sexual intercourse. It can also be transmitted through oral sex. It can be passed even if there are no signs or symptoms of the virus. It cannot be spread by kissing, toilet seats, bedding, door knobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, shared clothing or eating utensils.
Most people with HPV never have any symptoms. Symptoms can develop years after initially being infected.
Genital warts have varying appearances. They may be pink, yellowish, or grayish. They may occur as isolated bumps or appear as a cauliflower-like growth. Some warts are flat and cannot be felt. They may occur anywhere in the genital area, around the anus, and in the mouth if transmitted through oral sex. Genital warts will appear white when coated with white distilled vinegar.
HPV is the number one cause of abnormal pap smears. Only a few of the more than 80 strains of the virus actually cause abnormal pap smears. HPV can cause cell changes on the cervix, which can eventually lead to cervical cancer. There are no symptoms of these cell changes and, with treatment, few of the women with them will go on to develop cancer. The only way to detect these cell changes is though a pap smear.
Since HPV is a virus, there is no cure. Genital warts are usually treated by placing a solution on them. This may be done in a health care provider’s office with TCA or liquid nitrogen, or a prescription may be written for Aldara or Condylox for the patient to use at home. Extensive warts may require laser surgery. Do not use over-the-counter wart treatments. They can damage the sensitive skin in the genital area.
A woman with an abnormal pap smear may be asked to have a colposcopy to determine the type and extent of the cell changes on her cervix. For some women, no treatment is necessary, and her body will resolve the cell changes on it’s own. Others may require cryotherapy (freezing) or LEEP to remove the abnormal cells. Severe cases are treated with a cone biopsy or laser surgery. Treatment for cervical cancer may include a hysterectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Since HPV is a virus, there is no cure. Warts and cervical cell changes can recur at anytime in a person’s life. A person can also be re-infected with a different strain of HPV.
Two uninfected people with no sex partners besides each other cannot contract HPV. Unfortunately, most people are infected and do not know it. A latex condom is a good defense if it is put on before starting sex and worn until the penis is withdrawn. However, a condom is only a shield where it covers, and the virus can be present elsewhere. Washing the genitals, urinating, or douching after sex DOES NOT prevent transmission. Women should have annual pap smears to detect cell changes on the cervix and prevent cervical cancer from developing.
- A vaccine developed by Merck
- Protects against HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18
- Helps prevent cervical cancer
- Approved for use in females aged 9-26
- Most effective if administered before the onset of sexual activity
- Over half of all sexually active men and women become infected with HPV at some time in their lives
- Vaccine is administered through a three dose regimen over six months
- May not fully protect everyone and does not prevent all types of cervical cancer, so it is important to continue safe sex practices and regular cervical cancer screenings.
- Estimated cost is $360 but financial alternatives are available
- Talk to your health care provider for more information