HPV stands for human papilloma virus and is the most common sexually transmitted infection; it is also the virus that causes cervical cancer. If you have HPV on your Pap smear it does not mean that you have cervical cancer, but may be more likely to develop pre cancerous and cancerous changes in the genital, anal and oral areas. For some women, your health care provider may suggest that you have more frequent Pap smears or a test called a colposcopy, a more detailed examination of the genital area. Most women who are infected with HPV do not know it, because most of the time there will be no symptoms.
Approximately 20 million Americans are infected with HPV and 6 million will be newly infected each year. Indeed, approximately 50% of sexually active women will be infected. About 1% of sexually active adults in the U.S. have genital warts at any one time.
There are more than 40 HPV types that can infect the genital areas of males and females. These HPV types can also infect the anal region, mouth and throat. HPV is passed on through genital contact, anal sex, oral sex and genital-to-genital contact.
A person can have HPV even if years have passed since he or she had sexual contact with an infected person. Most infected persons do not realize they are infected or that they are passing the virus on to a sex partner. It is also possible to get more than one type of HPV.
Most women do not develop serious problems from an HPV infection, and the vast majority of the time a woman’s immune system will control the virus. However, HPV infections may lead to warts in the genital or oral areas (throat), precancerous and cancerous changes in the cervix, vulva and vagina, and head and neck (tongue, tonsils and throat).
The over 40 HPV types that can infect a woman are generally categorized as high-risk (linked to cancers and significant, high-grade precancerous changes) and low-risk (linked to warts and low grade precancerous changes). HPV infections can cause the cells of the genital and oral areas to turn abnormal. Genital warts can appear weeks to months after infection, cancer most often takes years to develop. If the immune system if effective at clearing the HPV infection, abnormal cells may also go back to normal. Women who have weakened immune systems due to conditions such as HIV or are on immunosuppressant drugs are at higher risk for some HPV-related problems.
HPV can be prevented though vaccines, condoms, and limiting the number of sexual partners. There are currently two HPV vaccines available, Gardasil and Cervarix. These vaccines do not protect against all types of HPV types and are targeted to the most common types. Gardasil protects against the 9 most common HPV types. Cervarix protects against HPV types 16 and 18. To be most effective the vaccines should be given before first sexual contact. They are FDA approved for use up to the age of 26 years.
Condoms may lower the risk of transmission of HPV. To be most effective, they should be used with every sex act, from start to finish. They are, however, not 100% effective as the virus can still be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact.
If you do have the presence of an HPV infection, review management with your health care provider. Make sure that you get your Pap smears on a regular basis and if recommended, more intense screening for precancerous changes of the genital areas, such as colposcopy. While individuals who have anal intercourse may be more predisposed to have anal HPV related changes, anal HPV infection can also occur in the absence of anal intercourse. Currently, there are no screening recommendations for the anal areas, however an anal Pap smear may be recommended. The HPV tests on the market are only used to help screen for cervical cancer. There is no HPV test approved for the mouth or throat. There are no formal recommendations concerning head and neck screening for people with HPV. However, symptoms of a persistent sore throat; persistent hoarse voice; neck lump or mouth lesions may be present with a head and neck HPV infection. These should be reported to your health care provider. You should see a dentist on a regular basis and talk to your health care provider concerning seeing a head and neck physician for screening.
There is no proven effective treatment for the virus itself, but there are treatments for the diseases that HPV can cause. Eat a healthy diet rich in antioxidant nutrients with a variety of fruits and vegetables. Mushroom extract (AHCC) has also been demonstrated to possibly help with HPV eradication. Larger studies are currently being conducted in order to determine its usefulness.
In summary, HPV usually goes away on its own, without causing major health problems. However, infection can lead to precancerous and cancerous changes of the genital, anal and head and neck areas. Review prevention and screening strategies with your health care provider.