Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. People get it by having vaginal, oral or anal sex with someone carrying the virus. The virus can be present even when the infected person shows no symptoms and it may take years after having sex with the viral carrier for signs of illness to present.
In the absence of symptoms, the infected person may be tipped off by an intimate partner who tested positive for the virus after experiencing health issues.
HPV spreads easily from skin-to-skin contact with an infected sexual partner. The virus spreads when one person’s genitals, mouth or throat touches someone else’s vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, or anus. This usually happens during sex but could happen in a non-sexual encounter.
The good news is that, for the most part, HPV runs its course and goes away all by itself with no signs or symptomatic health problems. The bad news is that warts (growths on skin or mucous membrane) and cancer are common medical issues that arise from certain strains of this STI.
It is possible to get HPV from a single sexual partner if that person was already infected. This makes identifying the source of the infection easy. Infected people who shared bodily fluids with more than one sexual partner need to reach out to as many of them as possible to caution that they, too, may have contracted the virus.
There are over 200 types of HPV. The types of HPV responsible for genital warts are not the same as the 40-some types that can cause cancers. (A genital wart usually looks like a small bump in the genital area. There may be a cluster of several warts, small or large, raised, flat or cauliflower-shaped.)
HPV that is spread by sexual contact can cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, cervix, rectum, penis, anus or scrotum. It can also cause oropharyngeal cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils. Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets HPV.
Pap/HPV tests can detect the virus in women for easy treatment before it becomes cancerous. Screening and treatment of pre-cancerous lesions in women from age 30 is a cost-effective way to prevent cervical cancer which is curable when diagnosed at an early stage.
Visual inspection by a doctor can often lead to a diagnosis of HPV infection but tests are available if genital warts aren’t visible:
- Vinegar (acetic acid) solution test. A vinegar solution applied to HPV-infected genital areas turns them white, helping to contrast difficult-to-see flat lesions.
- Pap test. A gynecological healthcare professional collects a sample of cells from the cervix or vagina for laboratory tests to identify potentially carcinogenic abnormalities.
- DNA test. Cervical cell test to identify the DNA of the high-risk varieties of HPV associated with genital cancers. Women 30 and older are advised to get this test with a Pap smear.
Concerning all STIs, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Using a barrier method during sex such as a condom or dental dam (a thin, square piece of latex that, when placed over the vulva or anus during oral sex, helps prevent the spread of STDs) can help lower the risk of contracting the HPV virus from an infected person who may not know they are putting a partner at risk of transmission.
Other kinds of HPV cause common warts on the hands and plantar warts on the feet but these viruses aren’t spread by having sex. Warts can be removed by a qualified healthcare clinician.
It is thought that people whose immune systems have been weakened or compromised run a higher risk of developing symptoms as their bodies are less able to fight off the virus.
Medical science has no way to predict which people with the HPV virus will experience health problems, including cancer.
Two types of HPV – types 6 and 11 – underlie most cases of genital warts. Although unpleasant, warts “down there” are medically manageable and are deemed low-risk HPV because they don’t worsen into other serious health problems or cancer.
At least 12 types of HPV have been identified that can lead to cancer in some cases. Because types 16 and 18 cause most cancer cases, including 70 percent of cervical cancers and pre-cancerous cervical lesions, they are called high-risk HPV.
HPV is incurable but prevention of certain types through vaccination is an option. The HPV vaccine sold under the brand name Gardasil 9 provides protection from certain types of HPV linked to cancer or genital warts.
The HPV vaccine is administered in a series of injections. People aged 15 to 45 receive the HPV vaccine in three separate shots. The second shot is given two months after the first and the final third dose is injected four months later. The full HPV vaccination series takes about six months to complete.
Children between the ages of 9-14 need only two injections. The second shot is given six months after the first shot.
Doctors recommend that children get the vaccine when they are 11 or 12 to protect them years before they become sexually active.
The medical establishment claims that the HPV vaccine is safe. The most common side effect reported is temporary pain and redness at the injection point.
Planned Parenthood, clinics, health departments, and private nurses and doctors can provide the HPV vaccine. Injections cost about $250 each and many health insurers cover the expense. Information about low- or no-income programs that are available is readily available from Planned Parenthood or any doctor or nurse.