HPV (Human Papillomavirus)
What is HPV (Human Papillomavirus)?
There are more than 40 HPV types that can infect the genital areas of males and females. Some of these types cause genital warts and some are known to cause cervical cancer.
The type of HPV that causes genital warts does not cause cancer and the cancer causing type does not cause genital warts. They are two separate strains of the virus.
Because both strains of HPV do not always cause symptoms, many people do not know they are infected with HPV. Genital human papillomavirus (also called HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection. It is also possible to get more than one type of HPV. Most people who become infected with HPV do not even know they have it. HPV is not the same as herpes or HIV (the virus that causes AIDS).
A person can have HPV even if years have passed since he or she had sexual contact with an infected person. Most infected people do not realize they are infected or that they are passing the virus on to a sex partner.
HPV is passed on:
- Through genital contact
- Most often during vaginal and anal sex
- During oral sex and genital-to-genital contact
- Between straight and same-sex partners—even when the infected partner has no signs or symptoms.
How is HPV tested?
Many tests check for high-risk types of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) in women who had a Pap test that showed abnormal cervical cells called atypical squamous cells. An HPV test can help look for one or more high-risk types of HPV. If an HPV test shows that high-risk types of HPV are present, further testing, such as Colposcopy or cervical biopsy, may be recommended.
Women older than age 25 should check for HPV as part of screening for abnormal cervical cells. The HPV test may be done at the same time as the Pap test. The results of this test can help doctors decide if further tests or treatments are needed.
How is HPV treated?
The HPV virus itself cannot be treated, but often the body will clear HPV infection on its own. In most women, cervical HPV infection clears on its own within two years of detection.
If it does not, and treatment is needed, there are many options. Plus, as more people are vaccinated with the new HPV vaccines, the rates of infection may be greatly reduced.
Simply testing positive for HPV may not mean you will need treatment, at least not immediately. After a positive HPV test, your doctor may suggest close monitoring.
Doctors may swab cells from the cervix, just as they are collected for a Pap test, and have them analyzed in a laboratory. This analysis looks for genetic material, or DNA, of HPV within the body’s cells. It can detect the high-risk HPV types.
If a woman is infected with a type of HPV that can lead to cancer, the doctor may suggest frequent Pap tests to watch for signs of abnormal cell changes in the genital area. Abnormal cell changes in the cervix are a warning sign of possible cervical cancer. The doctor may also do a test called Colposcopy, in which a special magnifying device is used to look closely at the cervix, vagina, and vulva.
If the HPV infection has caused abnormal cell changes that could lead to cervical cancer, there are four main treatment options:
- Watch and wait. Sometimes the cell changes — called cervical dysplasia, precancerous cell changes, or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia — will heal on their own
- Cryotherapy. This involves freezing the abnormal cells with liquid nitrogen
- Conization. This procedure, also known as a cone biopsy, removes the abnormal areas
- LEEP or Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure. The abnormal cells are removed with an electrical current.
The goal is to remove all the abnormal cells and thus remove most or all of the cells with HPV.