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Everything you need to know about HPV

  • Category: Sexual Health
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: LVMC Staff
Everything you need to know about HPV

What is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI)? The answer may surprise you. Infections like gonorrhea, chlamydia, and herpes simplex tend to get more attention when it comes to STIs because they can occur with symptoms that are often hard to ignore. However, the most common STI is actually a virus known as human papillomavirus or HPV.

If you’re not familiar with HPV, you’re not alone. This virus often causes no symptoms at all and is cleared by the body naturally after some time. However, certain strains of the HPV virus can cause concerning consequences, such as genital warts and even cancer. At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we are devoted to educating patients on important health matters so that they can continue thriving in every aspect of life. Read on for this primer about HPV, including its causes, how it’s transmitted, its symptoms, how it can be treated, its potential consequences, and how it can be prevented.

What is HPV?

HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is a virus that is spread through sexual contact. The virus is highly common. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly everyone who is sexually active will have HPV at some point throughout their lifetime. People of both sexes can become infected by HPV and transmit the virus to one another.

What causes an HPV infection?

An HPV infection is caused when the virus spreads from one infected person to another person through skin-to-skin contact. This may include contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. HPV can also be transmitted by sharing sex toys. The virus can be spread even if the person who is infected has no symptoms or is unaware that they’re infected.

What are the symptoms of HPV?

According to the CDC, most people who have an HPV infection are entirely unaware that they have the infection. This is because most people will never even develop symptoms of HPV or any related health conditions.

If you do have symptoms of HPV, it may be from a genital wart. A genital wart caused by HPV may trigger symptoms such as itching, scratching, friction, burning or pain in the area of the lesion.

Other signs of HPV may include an abnormal Pap smear (this is a test used to detect cervical cancer). You may experience some spotting or bleeding outside of your menstrual period if HPV has caused changes to your cervix.

Unlike other STIs, HPV does not cause symptoms such as burning with urination, or vaginal or penile discharge. However, it is possible to be “co-infected” with HPV and another virus that causes these symptoms--in other words, it's possible to have more than one sexually transmitted infection at a time. Having human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and HPV can make you more vulnerable to developing health consequences from HPV because your immune system will be less likely to clear the virus on its own. If you have HIV, or suspect that you do, make sure to check in with your healthcare provider about special screenings that you may need to keep you safe and detect any HPV-related health concerns early on.

How is HPV diagnosed?

HPV is typically diagnosed during routine health screening. In a sexual health examination called a Pap smear, a medical provider can check for the presence of HPV using a simple swab of cells taken from the cervix. Sometimes, an HPV test will be used during anal screening, as well. If HPV is detected on the screen, then you will be monitored for a certain period and rechecked to make sure the virus has cleared on its own.

Another way of diagnosing HPV is through a simple exam. A genital wart can be diagnosed by a healthcare provider who is skilled at identifying them. In general, an HPV-related genital wart will look like a bump or a collection of bumps. They vary in size and they may resemble a cauliflower, or they may be flat.

Because HPV is so common in the population, healthcare providers only screen for HPV in certain populations that are considered to be at higher risk of complications. For example, male partners of women who have HPV are not usually screened for the virus, women who are younger than age 25 are not usually screened, and the HPV test is not used as a general test when screening for STIs.

What are the myths surrounding HPV diagnosis?

There are a few misconceptions regarding HPV diagnosis. First, a diagnosis of HPV cannot tell you whether your infection will clear on its own or progress. A healthcare provider can't know which HPV infection will convert to cancer and which will not. Second, HPV cannot be detected through a blood test. It is also not one of the STIs that is screened for during an STI test that checks for gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomonas, HIV, or syphilis. Third, HPV is not permanent like other viruses like herpes simplex virus (HSV) or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Once you are diagnosed with HPV, it does not mean you will have the virus forever—the grand majority of the time, it will be fully cleared by your immune system. However, if you have had HPV once, it is possible to get reinfected again because there are many different strains of the virus.

How is HPV treated?

Most HPV infections do not require treatment. There is no specific treatment for the HPV virus. However, symptoms of the HPV virus can be treated.

If you have a genital wart as a result of the HPV virus, this can be treated using prescription medication. If you don’t get treatment for a genital wart, it may go away on its own after some time, or it may continue to grow or spread. You may also find that the wart isn’t causing you any discomfort—if that is the case, you may not need it to be treated.

If you are found to have early signs of cervical cancer from an HPV infection, this can also be treated. If other signs of cancers are detected, these can also be treated, especially when they are found early.

What are the potential consequences of an HPV infection?

The grand majority of HPV infections (up to 90 percent) will be cleared on their own by your immune system within two years. However, certain strains of the HPV virus may linger and not be fully cleared by your immune system. When this happens, they can cause cancers in the various infection sites, such as the cervix, vagina, penis, anus, throat, tonsils, or tongue.

How can HPV be prevented?

One of the most encouraging insights when it comes to HPV infections is that they are highly preventable using a vaccine. Many experts have rejoiced at the arrival of the HPV vaccine because it represents a vaccine that can actually help prevent cancer. The HPV vaccine is specifically designed to help prevent infections from the HPV strains that most commonly cause cancers.

Who should get the HPV vaccine?

Healthcare providers recommend that all adolescents (both boys and girls) get vaccinated against HPV. The vaccine series (which is typically two doses) can begin as early as age 9, but generally, the vaccine is recommended at age 11 or 12. These recommendations exist because the vaccine can have the fullest effect when a person is vaccinated before they are infected with the virus (i.e., before they become sexually active).

Both doses of the vaccine should be given before the 15th birthday. If this is not feasible, three doses can be given after the 15th birthday to make sure the series is most effective. A catch-up schedule is available for people younger than 26, but the vaccine is generally not given after age 26 because it is less effective after this age.

Other ways to prevent HPV

Other ways to prevent HPV include using full protection during sexual contact. This includes barrier methods such as condoms or diaphragms during penetrative intercourse and also during oral sex. Limiting your number of sexual partners can also help reduce your exposure to the HPV virus and reduce your chances of getting the infection. But, even people who have only had one sexual partner or who have been monogamous for years can develop HPV symptoms. Ultimately, the most effective way of preventing an HPV infection is complete abstinence from sexual activity.

How to learn more about sexual health and STIs

If you’re sexually active, you can be living with an HPV infection and not even know it. Staying on top of routine sexual health screening and maintenance can help you identify any underlying infections and take action to prevent any health consequences. At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, our family medicine and internal medicine providers are skilled at helping diagnose sexually transmitted infections and manage these important conditions. They also work closely with specialists in sexual health, known as OBGYN providers.

To make an appointment for a routine sexual health check-up or for help with a current sexual health question, contact us today.