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Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Last updated on Sunday, February 16, 2014

Overview

Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are common viruses that cause warts. There are more than 100 different types of HPVs, over 40 of which can be transmitted via sexual contact, and they are classified as either low-risk (causing genital warts) or high-risk (potentially leading to cancers of the cervix, vulva, and anus in women and cancers of the anus and penis in men). Over 50% of sexually active people will contract HPV at some point in their lives. Using latex condoms can significantly reduce the risk of catching or spreading HPV, and vaccines are also available to prevent infection by several variants of the virus.

Causes

An HPV infection can be transmitted through direct contact with an infected individual or with the virus itself. HPV that affects the genital area is known as genital HPV, which is highly contagious and can be caught through oral, vaginal, or anal sex with an infected partner. Most genital warts are caused by HPV-6 and HPV-11, which are considered low-risk types. High-risk types of HPV include HPVs-16, 18, 31, and 45, and can cause premalignant changes. Both men and women are at equal risks of HPV infection.

The virus is able to penetrate skin and mucosal surfaces via small cuts and scratches in the genital area. A period of latency anywhere from a few weeks up to a few years then takes place, during which there is no evidence of infection. Usually about 75% of infected people will develop genital warts (condylomata acuminata) within three months of initial viral contact, while others might not perceive any symptoms at all.

Symptoms

In women, genital warts can develop on the outside and inside of the vagina, on the opening to the uterus (cervix), or in and around the anus. Genital warts are less common in men but they can occur on the tip and shaft of the penis, on the scrotum, or in and around the anus. They can also develop in the mouth or throat from oral sex. The warts can be flat and flesh-colored or bumpy, often forming in clusters, and may itch, burn, or otherwise cause discomfort. Many cases of genital HPV often do not have significant signs and symptoms, but an infected individual can still spread the virus or develop complications such as cancer.

Treatments

Although there is no cure for HPV, several treatments are available. Since HPV can cause cancer, it is important to seek medical evaluation if any symptoms of genital warts are observed. A doctor may remove the warts by freezing (cryosurgery), burning (electrocautery), or by laser treatment. Chemicals may also be prescribed. Pregnant women should not use such chemicals due to the risks of birth defects. Do not use over-the-counter medicines intended for other kinds of warts. Large warts may require surgery, and while warts can be removed, the virus will remain in the body, and new warts may rise again. Women with abnormal cervical cells should have regular pelvic exams and Pap smears to evaluate their conditions.

Prevention

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The most effective way to prevent HPV infection is to avoid contact with the virus, especially direct skin-to-skin and sexual contact with an infected individual. Practicing abstinence, limiting the number of sexual partners, choosing one with few past sex partners, and using a condom can reduce but not eliminate the risk of infection. Remember that using protection during sex is always important for reducing the risk of STIs. Women should also get regular Pap tests and avoid smoking to lower the chance of cervical cancer.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved vaccines that can prevent diseases caused by HPVs for both males and females. Gardasil® and Cervarix® are two that are effective against high-risk HPVs that may lead to cancer. Since 2006, it has been recommended that all females aged 11 to 26 receive the vaccine, and recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Panel also advised that young men receive the vaccine as well. Much of this has been due to research that the vaccine protects against certain types of anal and throat cancers that affect men and that if men receive the vaccine, HPV prevalence rate may decrease due to an increasing population with immunity. Gardasil® can also protect against genital warts. A physician's prescription is needed for the vaccinations. Talk to a doctor for more information.

Tags: anuscancercervixgenital wartshpvshuman papillomavirusesmenpenissexstdsstisvaccineswomen

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