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The Facts About HPV: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatments & Prevention

Dec 15, 2021

The Facts About HPV: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatments & Prevention

You may have heard about (or read about) human papillomavirus infections, which are quite common among young adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HPV infections are very common among sexually active people, but many virgins have also contracted them through non-sexual transmission. How scary is that? Here we discuss HPV causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and prevention. 

What is HPV?

Human papillomavirus virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection. HPV causes genital warts and cervical cancer, making it a very serious public health issue.

There are different types of HPV that can infect anyone who has sex, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. However, HPV doesn't usually cause any symptoms, so it spreads without people knowing about it. Whether through vaginal sex, anal sex or oral sex, HPV spreads through sexual contact with someone who carries the virus. There is no cure for HPV and once you have it, you cannot get rid of it completely, but medication can help you manage it.

There are over 100 different types of human papillomavirus, but only a handful causes the majority of genital warts and cancers. About 40 affect the genital region, while others cause skin warts or warts inside the mouth or throat. Persistent HPV infections can lead to cervical cancer, which causes abnormal changes to the cervical cells.

How common is HPV in Australia?Source: MedicalExpo

What are the Symptoms of HPV?

Most people with HPV do not develop symptoms and may never know they have the virus.  Bleeding during intercourse and painful urination are some symptoms, but not everyone experiences them. Some individuals who contract the virus may develop warts on certain areas of their body, such as the hands or feet. Others may develop warts throughout their genital area. An HPV-associated disease may exhibit any of the following warts:

Genital warts

Women with genital HPV infections can develop flat warts or clustered warts on the vulva, as well as near the anus. A genital infection affects the penis or scrotum in men. Genital warts seldom cause pain, but they can be itchy.

Common warts

Common warts are usually raised and rough in appearance. Often seen on the hands and fingers, these visible warts can cause pain.

Plantar warts

Plantar warts are rough, hard bumps that usually appear on the heels or balls of the feet. The pain of these warts can make walking or merely standing a real struggle.

These symptoms can be seen almost immediately if they are going to appear, or may take months or years. It is possible to pass HPV onto another person even when there are no symptoms present at all.

Types of HPV

Even though most HPV infections are undetectable and disappear without treatment, certain types of cancer may develop as a result of HPV-related diseases. There are two types of HPV that can infect a person: low-risk HPV and high-risk HPV.

  • Low-risk HPV types seldom cause symptoms and do not increase a person's risk for cancer. In fact, people with strong immune systems can expel genital warts caused by low-risk HPV. 
  • High-risk HPV types can lead to serious health problems, including different types of cancer such as vaginal cancer, anal cancer, throat cancer and oropharyngeal cancers, penile and cervical cancers. The high-risk type can be transmitted in more ways than just through sexual activities. It can also be spread through an open wound or sore on the skin, by sharing towels with infected people, or even by touching something that has been contaminated with semen or vaginal fluid.

What Causes HPV?

Human papillomavirus is primarily transmitted sexually. Certain factors, however, greatly increase the risk of contracting HPV non-sexually. People who have previously had genital warts are four times more likely to get an outbreak than those who have never had them. It is also caused by having multiple sexual partners or by having family members infected with HPV. Everyone must consider all of their risks before engaging in sexual activity in order to best protect themselves against all strains of HPV.

Now, it may surprise you to learn that many people with HPV-related cancers aren't sexually active. That's because you can pick up the virus by coming into contact with an infected surface, whether it's in a hospital, clinic or gym. The virus can potentially infect anyone on any surface that comes into contact with their skin or privates, which is unfortunate. 

Diagnostic Tests for Human Papillomavirus

Many people who have HPV might never develop symptoms or health problems. By getting regular check-ups and a routine screening, you can get information about your health that you may not even notice yourself — and get it early enough to take action to protect your health. Your doctor will start by asking questions about your personal and family medical history, any symptoms you've had, medicines you take, allergies you have, and lifestyle issues such as smoking or drinking alcohol. He or she will examine you and recommend laboratory tests that you might need.

For sexually active women, a doctor may recommend a pelvic exam, especially if they have the habit of having vaginal intercourse without using a condom. During the pelvic exam, the doctor will look for abnormal cells or growths on their genitals, including genital warts and precancerous lesions caused by HPV. If the doctor does not get much information from the other diagnostic procedures, a cervical cancer screening may also be necessary.

Treatment for HPV

There's no way to treat some types of HPV, but there are treatments available for genital warts if they appear. If you're diagnosed with other genital HPV infections that cause changes in your cells or cervical cancer, your doctor will talk to you about treatment and follow-up care you need.

Additionally, your doctor may prescribe medications that reduce pain, itching or burning. Sitz baths, steroid creams or other topical treatments are some of the recommendations they can give to relieve swelling and discomfort caused by infection around the genital area. 

You can have your doctor remove warts caused by genital contact with cryotherapy, in which tissue is frozen, or with electrocautery, in which tissue is burned off. The use of antihistamines can also alleviate itching of the skin or pain when sitting. Stool softeners or suppositories may be prescribed by a doctor in order to stop bleeding from inflamed perianal lesions. 

Prevention of HPV

It is recommended that all children get their first HPV vaccine dose when they are 11 or 12 years old, since the vaccines work best if given before exposure to HPV. For more information, talk with your doctor. If you didn't get the HPV vaccine when you were younger or if you are unsure if you've had it before, you should get it now. It is also possible for the virus to be transmitted from mother to baby, so getting vaccinated is even more imperative if planning to have a baby soon.

Other methods of prevention include maintaining good sexual health and sticking with one sex partner. This will lower your chances of having genital warts, cervical cancer, HPV-associated cancers, and other diseases like oral cancers. Using protection cannot guarantee 100% prevention because some types of HPV can be transmitted through skin contact, not just through sexual intercourse. 

If you're not sexually active, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to practise proper hygiene and be extra clean, especially when you're in public places. Before handling or mounting the equipment at a neighborhood gym, make sure to wipe and disinfect them. You're also better off wearing yoga pants while working out than super short shorts, which could increase your risk of contracting a virus from an infected person who used the gym equipment previously.

FAQs About Human Papillomavirus Virus (HPV)

Is HPV a big deal?

While HPV is one of the most common types of sexually transmitted diseases, it isn't as serious as some other STDs. Any sexually active person will contract HPV at some point. In healthy individuals, it comes and goes. Others may suffer more serious consequences.

Does HPV affect periods?

Yes it can. Women with HPV infections are likely to notice whitish or brown discharge that is foul-smelling. It is also common to experience bleeding after having sexual intercourse, between periods or after a pelvic exam. Additionally, their menstrual cycle may be longer and heavier.

How do you know when HPV is gone?

Because HPV doesn't usually come with clear-cut symptoms, it can be difficult to tell if you have it or had it. The only way to find out is through regular screening. The vast majority of HPV strains go away on their own without treatment.

Related Topics

Cervical Cancer,  Cancer

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