HPV, the most common sexually transmitted disease, is also known as the human papilloma virus. There are 30 to 40 types of the HPV virus which are passed through sexual contact.
There are general categorizations of the virus: low risk and high risk. The low risk form causes warts. The high risk form causes cancer. HPV types 16 and 18 cause up to 70 percent of cervical cancer.
HPV can cause genital warts or lead to a number of cancers which affect the male and female reproductive organs, including cervical, vaginal and vulva cancer in women, penile cancer in men. HPV can lead to anal or rectal cancer in both sexes.
Warts look like tiny, white or flesh colored cauliflower-shaped growths and feel slightly rough to the touch. They vary in size and number. They may be seen or felt in the genital area, during a gynecological exam or (rarely) in the mouth or throat.
Warts may appear within weeks to months of initial infection, however, it is important to note that not everyone infected with HPV will develop warts. People can be infected without any outward sign of the virus and without any symptoms, making the virus incredibly easy to pass without knowing it was ever present. In some cases, the virus takes years for any signs to present.
HPV infections can be treated, but may still reoccur. Treatment of the warts does not affect the underlying virus. There are no treatments for the virus beyond what the body's immune system can manage on its own.
The immune system, in most cases, clears the virus within a two year period, regardless of whether it is a low risk or high risk strain. People with long term infections are at a greater risk of developing cancerous lesions as a result of the infection.
While the immune system may resist the infection over a long period, the virus can cause changes in cells that lead to cancer. Certain strains of HPV are known to put those infected at a higher risk of developing cancer.
Pap smears are an important tool to fight cervical cancer, as side effects of the disease do not appear until the illness is in an advanced stage. Pap tests may alert medical professionals to changes in the cervix which signal cancer.
There is also a DNA test which can indicate HPV infection. Pap smears and monitoring of the genital area are necessary to catch new eruptions or ongoing issues with HPV.
Because the infection involves skin as well as mucous membranes, it is easier to spread HPV and condom use may not completely protect against infection. The virus can be obtained through oral sex, anal sex, vaginal intercourse, petting and skin to skin contact. HPV can be passed (rarely) from mother to child during vaginal birth.
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