What is human papillomavirus?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common types of sexually transmitted infections in the world. The condition consists of a group of more than 100 different kinds of viruses. Some strains of HPV infect the genital area, causing warts. Other more serious strains can cause cancer in the cervix, anus or oral regions.
The most common HPV viruses can be prevented with vaccines given prior to the onset of sexual activity, but no vaccine can protect against all strains of HPV.
HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, typically through vaginal, anal or oral sex. Because HPV sometimes does not show any visible signs, both you and your partner may be unaware that one of you has the condition.
Though many people living with HPV may not show signs of the virus, some symptoms can develop and be both visible and internal, such as:
- Genital warts of varying numbers, sizes, colors and shapes
- Warts inside the vagina, cervix, anus or throat, which may not cause any symptoms
- Itchy pelvic areas
- Post-intercourse bleeding
How is it diagnosed?
Because HPV often has no visible signs of infection, it is very important for you to get regular Pap tests to check for the development of abnormal cells. If needed, a colposcopy may be used to allow your physician to closely examine your vagina and cervix. During this test, a sample of tissue may be taken for a cervical biopsy. Your physician can then conduct a DNA test to determine the type of HPV virus you have and whether or not it causes cancer.
Your physician may also be able to diagnose you visually by inspecting external or internal warts. Generally, the HPV virus strains that cause warts do not lead to cancer.
The first defense to HPV should always be vaccination. If an infection occurs and it does not disappear on its own, treatments must focus on symptoms because there is no cure for the virus.
For precancerous HPV viruses, your doctor may suggest:
- Close monitoring
- Laser therapy to burn off concerning tissue
- Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) or cone biopsy to remove the abnormal cells with a heated electrical current or scalpel
For HPV viruses causing warts, your doctor may suggest:
- Topical ointments
- Laser therapy to burn off the warts
- Surgical removal