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STDs: Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Warts caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
EJ
Emeh Joy

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted infection. They are of different types and can cause different types of cancer; however, they can be prevented by HPV vaccines.

HPV facts

  • Most men and women who are sexually active would contract the HPV virus at some point in their life.

  • HPV can spread via vaginal, oral or anal route.

  • It can cause development of genital warts and some types of cancer like cervical cancer.

  • It can be transmitted to a newborn during birth thus causing infection of the genital or respiratory system.

  • It is estimated that about 95% cases of anal cancers are as a result of HPV infection.

  • There is no cure for HPV yet however, HPV vaccines offer protection and is recommended to be administered at ages 11 and 12.

What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

Human papillomavirus is a common, sexually transmitted infection (STI). The virus is different from HSV and HIV, and they are of various types. There are up to 100 types of HPV with some of them causing genital warts and cancers like cervical and penile cancers.

HPV with over 100 different types are passed from person-to-person via skin to skin contact. Statistics have shown that many sexually active people will get it at some point even if they don't have multiple sexual partners. This is to show how common it is.

While some genital HPV infections do not pose any health problem, some types can cause cancers and genital warts.

Causes of HPV and route of transmission

HPV infection is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, and most times, people get it through direct sexual contact either via oral, vaginal or anal route. Since it is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, it means, it can be transmitted even without intercourse.

An individual can be infected with different types of HPV, and it is also possible to contract it from an asymptomatic partner.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) can be transmitted both via sexual and non-sexual route

There are also rare cases where a mother infected with HPV transmits the virus to her new baby during birth. This could ultimately lead to the baby developing 'recurrent respiratory papillomatosis' which presents with the formation of warts in the airways or throat.

HPV symptoms

There is currently no test to determine the 'HPV status' of a person; however, there are HPV tests that have been used in screening for cervical cancer. The tests are not recommended for men or women below the ages of 30.

Most times, people with HPV are asymptomatic and almost do not develop health problems as a result of the infection. However, depending on the type of HPV infection, some develop genital warts. Some people only find out about the virus when they have developed serious medical conditions such as cancers as a result of the infection.

Women also have higher chances of finding out as there is the cervical cancer screening or pap smear test, which can read an abnormal result when a woman is infected with particular strains of the virus.

HPV in women

According to an article published on womenshealth.gov, about 80% of women would contract at least one type of human papillomavirus in their lifetime. Many women with it are asymptomatic, and the infection resolves on its own without further medical complications.

Some women, however, would notice the formation of genital warts inside the vagina or around the cervix, vulva and anus. Some types of HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, throat or anus in the women

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) released updated guidelines which recommend that all women get their first pap test (pap smear) at age 21, whether they are sexually active or not.

Getting a regular pap test will help detect on time the development of abnormal cells in women which can cause cancer and other HPV-related conditions. For women up to 21, it is advised that they get a pap smear every three years.

The US FDA recently approved the Gardasil 9 vaccine for males and females between ages 9 and 45

HPV in men

Many men just like women do not show symptoms of HPV while some may develop genital warts. There are also some types of HPV that cause anal, penile and throat cancer in men. Men who receive anal sex and those with a weak immune system are at higher risk of getting infected.

It is important to note that currently, there is no FDA-approved test for diagnosing HPV in men. Routine screening for penile, anal or throat cancer in men has not yet been recommended although some doctors may perform anal pap test for men who are at a higher risk of developing anal cancer.

Risk factors for HPV infection

If you are sexually active, you are simply at risk of contracting HPV. Other factors can predispose one to the virus, such as:

  • Having multiple sexual partners
  • Having a partner infected with HPV
  • Having unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex
  • having a weak immune system

If you get infected with the high-risk HPV strain, some factors can increase the chances of it developing into severe medical conditions like cancer:

  • Having other sexually transmitted infections like herpes simplex and gonorrhoea
  • Prolonged use of oral contraceptives (increases risk of cervical cancer)
  • Consumption of tobacco or tobacco products (can lead to throat or mouth cancer)
  • Having anal sex (can predispose to anal cancer)
  • Being multiparous, i.e. having many children (can cause cervical cancer)
  • A weak immune system
  • Chronic inflammation

Can HPV be prevented?

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stating that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease, one can't help but wonder if it can be evaded.

The best and easiest way to prevent HPV infection is by using condoms and practising safe sex. Remember, having multiple partners increases the risk of contracting it.

There is also the Gardasil 9 vaccine for preventing cancers and genital warts caused by HPV. Also, it is not advisable to have sex when you have visible genital warts, and you should avoid picking the warts or biting fingernails.

HPV strains that cause genital warts are not the same as those that cause cancer. See a doctor as soon as you notice unusual bumps or lesions around your genital region. For women, do not skimp on getting a routine pap smear.

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