Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease, but because the disease can lay dormant for years, it is hard to determine where it originated. At least 50 percent of sexually active people contract some form of HPV during their lifetime. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 6.2 million new cases of HPV infections are reported every year. There are nearly 100 types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer and/or warts. Early detection is crucial in treating the infection.
Signs of HPV include genital, common, plantar and flat warts; pre-malignant genital lesions; cervical cancer; tumors; and oral or upper respiratory lesions. High-risk forms of HPV can cause cervical cancer in women. Low-risk forms may cause warts in men and women. Warts can appear on the penis, anus, vulva and vagina.
Regular Pap smears detect changes in the cervix caused by HPV and can help identify potential cervical cancer cases. Sometimes symptoms go unnoticed and Pap test results are normal, even though HPV is present in the body.
HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. It could enter your body through an open cut or abrasion. Infections associated with genital warts are transmitted through sexual intercourse, anal sex or skin-to-skin contact in the genital region. At some point, at least half of all sexually active women and men get HPV.
People with a high number of sexual partners are at a greater risk of contracting HPV. Experts say sexually active men and women younger than 25 are also at greater risk. A weak immune system may also affect the chances of getting the infection.
HPV does not affect a woman's ability to get pregnant. Women who become pregnant and have an HPV infection may have more outbreaks of genital warts than normal. This is because of their weakened immune systems. Sometimes warts can block the birth canal, making a vaginal delivery difficult. If this happens, a Cesarean section may be needed. Rarely does a baby of an HPV-infected mother become infected.
There is currently no cure for HPV, but there are treatments for some of the symptoms. For abnormal cells in the cervix, doctors may use laser treatment or cryosurgery, wherein the affected tissue is frozen off. A LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure) treatment removes the tissue using a hot wire loop. A cone biopsy, in which some of the tissue is removed for microscopic examination, is sometimes recommended. Genital warts may be burned, cut or frozen off. In some cases, the immune system will keep the virus under control or eventually clear it from the body.
There is now a vaccine, Gardasil, that can protect women from four types of HPV. They are the most common strains that cause cervical cancer and genital warts. It is recommended for girls as young as age 11 and up to age 26. However, it is only effective in women and girls who have not yet been infected by HPV.
Practicing sexual abstinence or monogamy is also a way to avoid the virus. Condoms offer limited protection from HPV infections.