Everything You Need to Know About the Human Papillomavirus

Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are a group of over 200 related viruses that are spread through skin-to-skin contact. Although most HPV won’t cause any symptoms and will usually resolve on their own, some strains of HPV can lead to warts and even cancer. When speaking of HPV infections, most think of the sexually transmitted strains that may cause genital warts and the other few that are responsible for over 90% of cervical cancer cases. Knowing more about HPV infections is a good way to become proactive about your health and to know what measures you should take to lower your risks of HPV infections and cancer. In this article, we cover everything you need to know about HPV infections.

What are HPVs?

Human Papillomaviruses

HPVs or human papillomaviruses are believed to be the most common sexually transmitted viruses in humans. However, certain strands of HPV can also be transmitted without involving sexual contact. HPVs are mostly known for their role in causing cervical cancer. People often get confused about HPV infections because of their multifaceted nature. For instance, some strains of HPVs cause symptoms while others don’t cause any symptoms at all. The only symptom of an HPV infections are usually warts. These warts can appear anywhere on the body and can spread to other body areas and other people as well. Certain strains of HPV are also known to cause cancer which might make some feel particularly concerned about HPV infection.

What is the Link Between HPV and Cancer?

HPV infections are most often linked to cancers of the vagina, penis, vulva, and anus, but their link is strongest for cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer in women in the U.S. preceded by breast and skin cancer. The link between HPV and cervical cancer was first established by German virologist Harold zur Hausen in the 1980s. Although there are over 200 strains of HPV, only two strains are known to cause most cervical cancers namely, HPV strains 16 and 18. Studies also believe the strains 6 and 11 are high-risk for cervical cancer. It is important to note that these strains of HPV usually don’t cause genital warts.

How to know if you are Infected?

Because HPV infections are so widespread and mostly benign, screening is limited for only the high-risk strains. Since cancer-causing HPV strains don’t cause any symptoms, the only way you could know if you are infected is through a Pap smear (Papanicolaou-stained smear). Since its introduction in the 1940s, Pap smears have helped cervical cancer incidence and mortality rated by half to two-thirds. The Pap-smear is a screening tool that helps detect changes in the cells of the cervix. Although a pap smear won’t detect the presence of HPV, it can detect early changes in the cells that could indicate the presence of HPV.

What to do if you are Infected?

If your pap smear results come out positive, meaning abnormal cells were detected in your pap smear, your doctor will probably recommend further screening after a couple of months. If abnormal cells are detected even after a couple of months have passed, you will be referred to a colposcopy. A colposcopy is a procedure where a doctor looks at your cervix under a magnifying instrument called a colposcope. Usually, doctors won’t detect any high-grade abnormalities at this stage, but if they do, the abnormality may require a biopsy and/or treatment for cancer. However, because Pap smears are now regularly performed and because cervical cancer takes as much as 10 years to develop, women who take regular Pap smears have pretty good outcomes.

Can HPV be Prevented?

HPV infections are hard to control. This is mostly because they are easily spread through skin-to-skin contact. The sexually transmitted strains are also hard to prevent even with condom use because HPV can be present in areas not covered by the condom. The only way to prevent sexually transmitted HPV infections is by not having sex or limiting the number of sexual partners. However, even those who’ve had sex with only one person during their lifetime can become infected with some strains of HPV. Another way to prevent HPV infections is through vaccines. Vaccines are available mostly for the two high-risk strains of HPV viruses for women under 25.

Conclusion

The human papillomavirus is fairly common in the general population. The less common strains of this virus are known to cause cancer in some. Regular screening through Pap smears can help prevent the development of cervical cancer in women infected with the cancer-causing strains of HPV. However, most people develop benign HPV infections that resolve on their own within a couple of years and who may only lead to warts. If you are concerned about HPV infections, talk to your doctor about getting a Pap smear or if you are worried about warts on your body, you can get them removed but these are usually not a cause for concern.

References

  • http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1586/14787210.2014.959497
  • http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC145302/
  • http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(13)60022-7/fulltext
  • https://www.csp.nsw.gov.au/media/15272/abnormal_pap_smear_brochure_pdf.pdf
  • http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-vaccine-fact-sheet