Embry Womens Health
OB/GYNs & Women’s Health located in Mesa, AZ
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What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the name of a large group of viruses that can be picked up from a variety of sources, including sexual intercourse. Many types of HPV don’t cause health problems. Of the sexually transmitted HPV viruses, some cause genital warts, and others — called high-risk HPV — cause cancer. According to the CDC, Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. In fact, it is so common that nearly all sexually-active men and women contract it at some point in their lives. In most cases, HPV goes away on its own but when it does not, it can cause cancer and genital warts.
What is the association between HPV and cervical cancer?
Virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. High-risk HPV infections can go away on their own, but if they stay in your body, they can cause the cells to grow abnormally. When they’re not treated, they progress to become cancer.
What are the symptoms of an HPV infection?
The HPV virus alone seldom causes symptoms. Symptoms only arise if the virus causes warts or cervical cancer.
Genital warts may look like a flat wart, clustered bumps, or a stem-like projection from the skin. Genital warts usually appear on the external genitalia, but they can also develop in the vagina, on the cervix, and near the anus. They’re usually not painful, but they may be itchy. Genital warts don’t usually signal cancer.
In the early stages, cervical cancer doesn’t cause symptoms. As the cancer grows into surrounding tissues, you may experience:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding: may be longer or heavier than normal, or may occur after sex, between periods, or after menopause
- Unusual vaginal discharge: may include blood and occur between periods
- Pain during sex
These symptoms don’t necessarily mean you have cancer, as they can be signs of other infections or gynecologic problems, but they should never be ignored.
Can HPV be prevented?
You can significantly lower your chance of contracting HPV by getting one of the approved vaccines or by using condoms every time you have sex. It’s also important to get regular preventive screening for cervical cancer and the HPV virus, so they can be caught at an early stage.
Schedule an appointment at Embry Women’s Health as soon as you notice symptoms or if it’s been a while since your last preventive screening. Book Online using the link above.
How can I prevent HPV infection?
The best way to avoid an HPV infection is to get a vaccination or avoid sexual contact. Current vaccination recommendations include vaccination of all boys and girls at the age of 11 or 12. If you didn’t receive a vaccination at that age, it’s possible to receive a “catch-up” vaccine later in adulthood.
Adhering to safe sex practices is another critical tool to prevent HPV infections. While the consistent and correct use of male latex condoms during sexual activity may reduce your risk, this virus can also spread through contact with infected skin or mucosal surfaces not covered by a latex condom.
Symptoms don’t have to be present to transmit HPV to your partner. Because there’s often no signs or symptoms, it can be difficult to know if you have HPV.
Many men, women, and children don’t realize they have HPV until they develop genital warts or have an abnormal Pap smear result. By that point, you may have unwittingly passed the virus on to multiple partners.
How is HPV and other STDs contracted?
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HPV are contracted by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus or disease. In many cases, STDs can be passed even when the infected person shows no signs or symptoms. In the case of HPV, anyone who is sexually active can get the virus, even if they have only had sex with one person. A person may be exposed to HPV through mere genital to genital contact and does not require intercourse. Both men and women can be carriers of HPV for any period of time; therefore, often we cannot pinpoint the exact moment when a patient first contracted the virus.
How do you test for and treat HPV and other STDs?
There is no current test for HPV, but there are HPV tests that can screen for cervical cancer. These tests are only recommended for women over the age of 30. However, the best way to prevent the virus is to be vaccinated against it. The HPV vaccine is recommended for everyone, males and females, between the ages of 9 and 26. There is no treatment for the virus itself, but only for the health problems caused by the virus. Genital warts, cervical precancer, and other HPV cancers are treated individually.
Testing for other STDs is generally done via a physical exam, a culture or swab from the infected site, or blood tests. Treatment of STDs varies depending on the disease. Oral antibiotics, antibiotic injections, and medications may be used.
What are treatment options for HPV?
There is no cure for the HPV virus. Your treatment focuses on the health problems brought on by an HPV infection, such as genital warts and cancers.
Genital warts are bumps or groupings of bumps on or near your genitals. They are small or large and appear flat or cauliflower-shaped.
In women, genital warts and cancers are detectable through a colposcopy, a minimally invasive diagnostic tool using a slim tube with a camera and light to visually inspect your vagina, cervix, and uterus.
If genital warts or abnormal cells are present, technologies that use heat or cold can remove them.
Cryosurgery destroys tumors or genital warts by freezing them using liquid nitrogen. A loop electrosurgical excision procedure removes damaged cells and genital warts with a small, electrically-heated wire loop.
Other Common HPV Questions:
How many types of HPV are there?
More than 100 types of HPV have been found. About 30 of these types infect the genital areas of men and women and are spread from person to person through sexual contact.
How common is HPV?
HPV is a very common virus. Some research suggests that at least three out of four people who have sex will get a genital HPV infection at some time during their lives.
How is HPV infection spread?
HPV is primarily spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex, but sexual intercourse is not required for infection to occur. HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact. Sexual contact with an infected partner, regardless of the sex of the partner, is the most common way the virus is spread. Like many other sexually transmitted diseases, there often are no signs or symptoms of genital HPV infection.
What diseases does HPV infection cause?
Approximately 12 types of Human Papillomavirus cause genital warts. These growths may appear on the outside or inside of the vagina or on the penis and can spread to nearby skin. Genital warts also can grow around the anus, on the vulva, or on the cervix.
Approximately 15 types of HPV are linked to cancer of the anus, cervix, vulva, vagina, and penis (see the FAQ Cervical Cancer). They also can cause cancer of the head and neck. These types are known as “high-risk types.”
How does HPV cause cancer of the cervix?
The cervix is covered by a thin layer of tissue made up of cells. If HPV is present, it may enter these cells. Infected cells may become abnormal or damaged and begin to grow differently. The changes in these cells may progress to what is known as precancer. Changes in the thin tissue covering the cervix are called dysplasia or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). In most women, the immune system destroys the virus before it causes cancer. But in some women, HPV is not destroyed by the immune system and does not go away. In these cases, HPV can lead to cancer or, more commonly, precancer.
Are there screening tests for cervical cancer?
It usually takes years for cervical cancer to develop. During this time, Human Papillomavirus infection can cause cells on or around the cervix to become abnormal. A Pap test, sometimes called cervical cytology screening, can detect early signs of abnormal cell changes of the cervix and allows early treatment so they do not become cancer.
An HPV test also is available. It is used along with the Pap test in women 30 years and older and as a follow-up test for women whose Pap tests show abnormal or uncertain results. The HPV test can identify 13–14 of the high-risk types of HPV.
Can HPV infection be prevented?
Two vaccines are available that protect against certain types of HPV. The following methods also help decrease the chance of infection:
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
- Use condoms to reduce your risk of infection when you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Condoms cannot fully protect you against HPV infection. Human Papillomavirus can be passed from person to person by touching infected areas not covered by a condom. These areas may include skin in the genital or anal areas. Female condoms cover more skin and may provide a little more protection than male condoms.
Cells: The smallest units of a structure in the body; the building blocks for all parts of the body.
Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia (CIN): Another term for dysplasia; a noncancerous condition that occurs when normal cells on the surface of the cervix are replaced by a layer of abnormal cells. CIN is graded as 1 (mild dysplasia), 2 (moderate dysplasia), or 3 (severe dysplasia or carcinoma in situ).
Cervix: The opening of the uterus at the top of the vagina.
Dysplasia: A noncancerous condition that occurs when normal cells are replaced by a layer of abnormal cells.
Immune System: The body’s natural defense system against foreign substances and invading organisms, such as bacteria that cause disease.
Pap Test: A test in which cells are taken from the cervix and vagina and examined under a microscope.
Sexual Intercourse: The act of the penis of the male entering the vagina of the female (also called “having sex” or “making love”).
Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Diseases that are spread by sexual contact, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, human papillomavirus infection, herpes, syphilis, and infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV, the cause of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome [AIDS]).
Vulva: The external female genital area.
Further questions can be answered by your provider at Embry Women’s Health.
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