The Human Papillomavirus: What is it? How could it affect me? How can I prevent it?

HPV, the human papillomavirus, is very common in both men and women.  There are over one hundred strands of the virus, approximately 30 of which are sexually transmitted. Some strands of the virus can result in genital warts, and others lead to cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, anus or penis. Approximately 80% of women have been exposed to this virus. It is most commonly spread by sexual contact with an infected partner. Like many other sexually transmitted infections, there are often no signs or symptoms of the virus and many men and women may not know that they are affected.

There are 2 strains of the HPV virus that are responsible for the majority of genital warts. The types of HPV that are associated with genital warts are referred to as “low-risk” because there is not an identified link between these strains of the virus and cancer. Warts may occur outside or inside the vagina or on the penis. They can spread to the surrounding skin or around the anus. They can be treated with medications or surgically.

There are many “high-risk” strains of the virus that are associated with cancer. 70% of all cervical cancers are associated with type 16 or type 18. Women infected with these strains of the virus are at higher risk for developing cancer. Many times a woman’s immune system can fight off the virus before a cancer develops. Cigarette smoking can decrease the body’s ability to destroy the virus, and when abnormal cells from HPV are present on the cervix, smoking doubles the risk of its progression to severe dysplasia (precancer).   It takes years for the virus to progress to a cancer, and these changes can be identified by pap smear. Pap smears can detect changes early and therefore treatments can be used when indicated to prevent the progression to cancer.

There is no medical cure for HPV, so focus has turned to preventing the virus.  Limiting your number of sexual partners will decrease your risk of exposure. Using condoms can also decrease your risk of infection.  There are 2 HPV vaccinations that can protect young women from being infected with the HPV virus.   One of these vaccines protects against types 16 and 18, the 2 main strains responsible for cervical cancer, and the other protects against strains 16 and 18, as well as 6 and 11 – the 2 main strains responsible for genital warts.   Both vaccines are given in 3 doses over a period of 6 months.  Vaccines are available for girls beginning at age 9, and can be received in young women up until age 26.  The vaccines are most effective if received prior to sexual activity. They can still be given after young women have been sexually active, if they have genital warts, if they have received an abnormal pap result, or if they have tested positive for HPV. While the vaccine will not treat the type that the woman is already infected with, it will protect her from obtaining an additional strain of the virus. Because the vaccines do not protect against all strains of the virus it is still important for women who have been vaccinated to continue receiving pap smears at the recommended intervals.  It is not recommended to receive an HPV vaccine during pregnancy, but is safe to get while breast feeding.  The most common side effects are soreness in the arm where the injection is given. Rarely women experience headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness or fainting. If present, these symptoms usually resolve quickly.

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