What is HPV?
HPV is a very common virus. There are about 100 different types of HPV which can affect different parts of the human body. The most commonly affected areas include the male and female genitals, rectum, and anus. Certain types of HPV are ‘high risk’ and can lead to cancer. Certain types of HPV lead to the formation of genital warts in the body. However, sexual contact does not cause genital warts. As per the statistics published by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 79 million Americans are infected with HPV. Almost 14 million people contract HPV each year. Therefore, if you are sexually active, you are at high risk of contracting HPV.
Types of HPV
Based on the potential of an HPV strain to cause cancer, strains are classified into two categories: low-risk strains and high-risk strains.
High-risk strain: These strains are responsible for causing cancer. Presence of these strains in your body causes abnormal growth of cells.
Low- risk strain: These strain lead to the formation of genital warts. The presence of only genital warts on your body may not lead to cancer. Hence, these strains are classified as low-risk strains.
Causes of HPV
HPV is primarily a sexually transmitted disease. Therefore, unprotected sexual intercourse results in HPV. However, recent studies have also shown that the virus is capable of being transmitted through non-penetrative sexual contact. Therefore, genital contact without intercourse can also lead to HPV. An infected mother can pass on HPV to the fetus.
Symptoms of HPV
HPV is a tricky disease to detect as there are very few outward symptoms. Bumpy warts on your genitals could be a sign of low-risk HPV. These warts are usually bumpy and have a cauliflower-like appearance. To confirm whether a genital wart is due to HPV, a medical examination is necessary. You must consult a medical practitioner as soon as you notice any warts on your genitals.
Diagnosis of HPV
Diagnosis is not an easy process. To be absolutely certain whether a person is suffering from HPV, doctors usually run a host of tests such as PAP smear, HPV test, and biopsy. Based on the outcome of these tests and the outwards symptoms, doctors are usually able to definitely rule on whether a person suffers from HPV. More often than not, people ignore the outward symptoms of HPV. This results in a delay in administering the tests. Following are the tests which are commonly administered:
PAP Smear test:
If you are a woman exhibiting the symptoms of HPV, one of the first tests to run is the PAP smear test. This test involves examination of a smear collected from the cervix. This test identifies whether there are any abnormal growths of the cell.
If you are a woman over the age of 30, this test can be run in parallel with the PAP smear test or independently to confirm whether you have been infected with the HPV virus. Doctors usually recommend that women in the age group of 30-65 years should go for a PAP smear test every three years as a preventive measure.
In the case of men, tests performed include anal PAP smear test. Usually, the presence of warts and its appearance on the groin is a definitive sign of HPV in men. In case a man engages in repetitive anal sex, anal PAP smear test is recommended.
Treatment of HPV
Treatment of HPV can be done through medication and surgery.
Usually, warts subside on their own and no medication is required. However, there are several over the counter remedies that you can use.
- Trichloroacetic acid: Though this formulation can cause irritation, it is very helpful in treating warts on the genitals and the palm.
- Salicylic acid: This formulation is extremely effective in layers of warts. However, it does cause irritation. So use it sparingly. It should not be applied directly – it should always be diluted in water prior to application.
- Podofilox: This is very effective in fighting off genital warts. However, it is bound to cause irritation and itching.
- Imiquimod: Another topical prescription ointment is Imiquimod. It strengthens the immunity system and helps it fight off the HPV.
In the unlikely event, the medication does not work on warts, the surgical procedure can be considered for treatment of HPV. According to the advice by the doctors at NYU Langone Health, the following surgical procedures can be considered:
Laser Surgery: Warts which have grown inside the vagina can be removed by laser surgery. The surgery also helps to destroy abnormal cervical or vaginal cells. If you undergo this procedure, healing may take up to a few weeks. So it is advisable to take it easy and give your body ample time to recuperate.
Loop Electrical Excision Procedure: This procedure utilizes a wire loop heated by electrical current to remove large genital warts. If you undergo this procedure, recovery may take up to four days. Recovery time also depends on the size of warts.
Electrocautery: In case warts are very small in size, your doctor may recommend the removal of warts through a small electrical probe. This procedure results in swelling and scarring as well. Recovery can take up to four weeks.
Excision: This procedure is used for the removal of warts which have hardened. The area where warts have grown is numbed by a local anesthetic and warts are excised.
Needless to say, if you are undergoing any surgical procedure for the removal of genital warts, sex is a big no-no. Do not engage in any sexual activity unless you obtain consent from your doctor. Engaging in sexual activity without letting your genitals to heal properly can result in further complications.
Prevention of HPV
Prevention is better than cure goes the old saying. In the case of HPV, prevention is the best medicine. While vaccinations are available, they are not very common. So make sure that you follow these preventive methods:
Safe sex: As HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, the best way to protect yourself is by practicing safe sex. Even if you are engaging in oral sex, make sure that you are using a condom. However, be mindful that usage of a condom is not a foolproof way to prevent HPV. If your partner is infected and there is any skin to skin contact, you run the risk of getting HPV.
Multiple sex partners: Studies have shown that multiple sex partners can increase your chances of contracting HPV. It can be hard to tell if your partner is already infected since the symptoms of HPV are not apparent. However, it must be clarified that any sexually active person has the risk of contracting HPV.
Abstinence: Abstaining from all types of sexual activity is the safest way to prevent yourself against HPV. This also includes any activity which results in direct skin to skin contact.
Follow the advice provided above and stay safe.