Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
What is it?
HPV is a large family of viruses that can cause warts and certain cancers. Specific strains, or types, of HPV cause warts on the hands or feet, other types of HPV infect the genital area. Genital HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted viruses. While genital HPV causes few symptoms on its own, it is linked to several forms of cancer. In fact, the National Cancer Institute reports that essentially all cervical cancers are the result of HPV infection. Cancers of the mouth, throat, penis and anus are also linked to HPV infection. Protecting yourself from infection is extremely important.
There are over a hundred different HPV strains, or types, that infect the genital area. They are broken down into “low risk” strains that can cause genital warts, and “high risk” strains that are associated with cancers.
HPV Symptoms and Detection
Approximately 75-80% of all sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. Most people show no symptoms at all. Others can experience:
- Genital warts: Raised, dry, usually soft and painless bumps around the genital or anal area. These are usually caused by low risk strains 6 or 11.
- Cervical changes: Detected by Pap test, a specific high risk HPV test that detects a group of strains associated with cervical cancer, or colposcopy (examination of the cervix using a magnifying scope). HPV infection of the cervix might not cause any problems, or could result in a precancerous change or even cervical cancer over time. High risk strains 16 and 18 are most likely to be found in cervical cancers.
- Other cancers of the penis, anus, head, and neck: These cancers are much less likely than genital warts or cervical changes leading to cervical cancer.
There is no screening test that detects HPV in men or people with penises. However, if your sexual partner is diagnosed with HPV, it is likely that you have been infected too.
Luckily, most of the time our immune system is able to fight and clear an HPV infection, even if it is a high risk strain. Studies suggest this process takes, on average, 18 months. Thus, for most people, an HPV infection goes away over time. Smoking specifically impairs the immune response to HPV, so it is particularly important for smokers to quit to improve the body's response to HPV.
Abstinence: The only way to avoid all forms of HPV infection is to abstain from intimate genital contact, including oral sex.
Vaccines: There are 3 HPV vaccines currently available in the world, but only Gardasil 9 is available in the United States:
- Cervarix: protects against high risk strains 16 and 18
- Gardisil: protects against high risk strains 16 and 18, and low risk strains 6 and 11
- Gardisil 9: protects against high risk strains 16, 18, and five others, as well as low risk strains 6 and 11
All vaccines are designed to prevent cervical cancer, and are recommended for people of all genders. The benefit to people without a cervix is to protect them from HPV related head and neck and anal cancers, as well as protecting their partners with a cervix from cervical cancer.
Gardisil is recommended for people of all genders ages 11-26. Gardisil 9 may be appropriate for people up to age 45 depending on your risk. Talk to a provider at the Student Health Center Medical Clinic to learn more.
You can get the vaccine at the Student Health Center. A series of 3 shots is required for full immunization. Immunization against HPV is more effective when administered at younger ages, but immunizing at any age can help prevent an HPV infection.
Condoms or other latex barriers can reduce your risk of contracting HPV; however, they are not 100% effective since they do not cover all potentially exposed skin. Limiting your number of lifetime sexual partners can also reduce your risk of becoming infected. A long term, mutually monogamous relationship is the safest.
There are many treatments for genital warts, including freezing or applying chemicals to the warts. There are some prescription topical treatments that are self-applied. Repeated treatments usually are required, and can sometimes take several months. Warts in the anal or rectal area may require surgical treatment. Genital warts cannot be treated with over-the-counter medications. Even after the visible warts are gone, you may still be infected with the HPV virus, and warts may return. You also may still be able to transmit the virus to your sexual partners.
Cervical HPV infections can be monitored through regular Pap smears, colposcopy, and biopsy when necessary. If there are associated precancerous changes, office treatments are available that prevent progression to cervical cancer. After these treatments, patients need careful follow up.
Even if you had the HPV vaccine, you should visit the Student Health Center Medical Clinic for recommended cervical cancer screenings. If you have paid the Student Health Fee, the cost of your visit is reduced if you make an appointment in advance.