Human papillomavirus is a very common virus that is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. It is considered a sexually transmitted infection because it is typically spread through vaginal, oral, and anal intercourse with an infected partner. However, HPV can be transmitted through kissing or non-sexual touching as well. There are no known cases of HPV transmission through environmental surfaces, such as toilet seats.
There are over 100 strains of HPV which can cause various problems in patients, including genital warts and cervical cancer. Some cases show no outward symptoms at all. Because the virus is so easy to transmit, and because a significant proportion of people don’t know they carry the virus, it is estimated that as many as 75% of sexually active people will contract HPV at some point in their lives.
HPV and Genital Warts
About a dozen strains of HPV are responsible for causing genital warts. Genital warts can develop in the vaginal canal, vulva, anus, and on the cervix. Genital warts can come in different shapes and sizes. They can appear as:
- Irregular textured skin tags
- Pink or brown patches
- Clusters of white, pink, or reddish bumps
If you contract a strain of HPV that causes genital warts, you may not see any symptoms for 2-3 months following transmission. However, symptoms can arise as soon as a few weeks after transmission. When warts appear, this is called a “break out.” If you are carrying the virus, you can still transmit it to partners even before or between “break outs.”
HPV and Cancer
There are around 15 strains of HPV that are associated with cervical, anal, vulvar, and vaginal cancer. In some cases these “high-risk” strains can cause cancer in the neck and head as well. In most HPV infections, the body’s immune system can eradicate the virus before it causes any harm. However, in some cases, the virus lingers and damages cells, which may cause pre-cancer or cancer if left untreated. This is especially true in immune-deficient patients.
When certain strains of HPV infect the cells of the cervix, the cells can begin to divide very rapidly, causing abnormal cervical cell changes. A Pap test can detect such changes. Pre-cancerous changes are known as cervical dysplasia or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). Pap smears can show abnormal cellular activity, as well as the presence of high-risk strains of HPV.
Because HPV is very common and transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, it’s difficult to completely prevent all strains of HPV. Experts believe that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S.
However, you can reduce your risk of contracting the virus by practicing safe sex. Limit your sexual partners and always use condoms, even during anal and oral sex. Female condoms protect more skin than male condoms, offering a little more defense against HPV transmission.
Sexually active youth are at particular risk for contracting HPV. They may not be aware of safe sex practices or may have a difficult time using condoms properly.
The Gardasil vaccine has been developed to protect against the most dangerous strains of HPV, including those that cause most cancers and genital warts. Vaccination against HPV is recommended for all youth (boys and girls) ages 11 and 12, before initiation into sexual activity. It is also recommended for young women up to age 26 and young men up to age 21, even if they are already sexually active.
The most effective way to prevent HPV is to get vaccinated before any exposure to the disease through sexual activity. This is why experts urge vaccination at such a young age for boys and girls. The vaccine is administered in three doses over a period of six months.
If you have symptoms of, or suffer from HPV, or have children and want to discuss the merits of the HPV vaccine, please click here to make an appointment or call us at (844) 863- 6700.