Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) describes common viruses—usually sexually transmitted—that can affect the genitals and, sometimes, the mouth or throat. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection. HPV should not be confused with herpes or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as it causes different symptoms and health problems. In fact, different versions of HPV can lead to different symptoms and health conditions.
Low-risk HPV can lead to genital warts, while higher-risk forms of the virus can cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina and anus in women. HPV can cause cancer of the penis and anus in men. In rare cases, a pregnant woman with HPV can pass the virus to her baby during delivery, in which case the child can develop Juvenile-Onset Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis (JORRP).
Most people who contract HPV do not show symptoms or health problems. Often, the body’s immune system will clear out the virus naturally within two years. For higher-risk forms of HPV, such as those that can cause cancer, visible signs may not appear until the condition is in an advanced state and can only be diagnosed by health care professionals, such as your Wellstar physician.
Symptoms of HPV can include:
- Genital warts, which usually appear as a small bump or groups of bumps. They can be raised or flat, or shaped like cauliflower.
- Throat warts caused by recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.
- Abnormal cells in the cervix, genital organs or anus
These risk factors could increase the likelihood of infection:
- Unprotected sex
- Multiple sex partners
- In younger patients, failure to get HPV vaccinations
HPV is spread through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex and, sometimes, through oral sex. Even if an infected partner exhibits no signs or symptoms, HPV can be transmitted. The only 100% effective prevention method is sexual abstinence.
You can lower your chances of getting HPV through several methods.
Reduce Your Risk of HPV
- Vaccines can protect against the most common types of HPV. The vaccines are administered in three doses over six months. The vaccines are most effective when you get them before your first sexual encounter. Two vaccines (Cervarix® and Gardasil®) are available and recommended for women between 11 and 26 years of age. The vaccines protect against HPV, which can cause cervical cancer. The Gardasil® vaccine can help prevent genital warts caused by HPV in women, and in men between 9 and 26 years of age.
- For Wellstar patients who are already sexually active, condoms may lower the risk of HPV infection and HPV-related diseases. But HPV can infect areas not covered by a condom, so condoms are not 100% effective.
- You may also lower your chances of infection by limiting sexual partners, although people with even one partner can get HPV.
Tests and Screenings
Currently, Wellstar and other health care providers routinely screen for cervical cancer. Besides visual inspections, there are no routine screening tests for other HPV-associated afflictions or cancers, but you should continue regular check-ups with your Wellstar physician. Two tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early:
- The Pap Test or Pap Smear helps find pre-cancers, cell changes on the cervix that may became cancerous if not treated.
- The HPV DNA Test checks for the virus itself. It has gradually gained acceptance as an additional screening tool for cervical cancer in conjunction with the Pap Test. It is used for women aged 30 years and older, and, sometimes, for men.
If screening tests or check-ups reveal abnormal results, your Wellstar physician will perform further evaluations regarding HPV.
- Inspection of warts, if visible
- Pap Tests or Pap Smears
- HPV DNA Test
Presently, there is no treatment for the virus itself. The majority of women have a healthy immune system, which helps them clear the virus from their bodies within 18-24 months.
There are treatments for the problems caused by HPV. In every case, your Wellstar physician will help you weigh the benefits of each treatment approach and make an experienced recommendation for the best outcome. You can feel confident your decision will be based on both your input and the expertise and recommendations of your experienced physician.
Taking Care of Genital Warts
An initial viable option in dealing with genital warts is to not treat them. An aggressive treatment plan at the first sign of genital warts might eliminate some, but not those that continue to emerge. In many cases, the warts may disappear on their own. Untreated genital warts, it should be noted, do not turn into cancer.
When active treatment becomes necessary, warts can be removed by the patient with topical medications. The two options are:
- Podofilox®, or Condylox®, which is used for four weeks to destroy the wart tissue. Research shows that between 45-90 % of warts disappear, but in 30-60 % of cases, the warts come back.
- Imiquimod®, or Aldara®, which boosts the immune system to fight the virus. Clearance rates range from 70-85 %, with between 5-20 % of cases recurring.
A Wellstar health care provider can also administer removal treatment with the options including:
- Surgical removal, which involves using a scalpel to cut the warts
- Electrocautery, which uses an electric current to burn off warts
- Cryotherapy, which freezes the wart with liquid nitrogen
- Trichloracetic acid, which applies a chemical to the wart
- Laser vaporization or excision of the warts
Taking Care of Abnormal Cervical Cells
After abnormal cervical cells appear on a Pap Test, they can become normal over time. But at other times, they can develop into cancer. If they remain abnormal, your Wellstar professional can engage in treatment to prevent them from becoming cancerous. Such options may include surgery, laser treatment or freezing. This depends on the severity of the cell changes as well as your age and medical history. Thus, it remains critical that patients with abnormal cervical cells follow up with testing and treatment as recommended by their Wellstar physicians.
Taking Care of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer, as with most cancers, is most treatable when it is diagnosed and treated early. Treatment, which may include surgery, depends on the severity of the cancer as well as your age, past medical history and other test results, which may include a cervical biopsy or a colonoscopy, which employs a specially designed microscope to examine the cervix.
Taking Care of other HPV-related Cancers
These cancers are most treatable when they are diagnosed and treated early. Treatment, which includes possible surgery, depends on the severity of the cancer as well as your age, past medical history and other test results.
Taking Care of Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis (RRP)
Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis (RRP) can be treated with surgery or medicines. Sometimes, it can take many treatments or surgeries over a period of years to get rid of RRP successfully.
Ongoing Care for HPV
Wellstar’s world-class, community-based physicians utilize state-of-the-art medical centers and hospitals with the latest technologies and medical resources. Our clinicians are dedicated to:
- Helping you create and maintain healthy lifestyles
- Offering advice to prevent illness and injuries
- Providing early and appropriate care of acute illness to prevent its progression
The Women’s Resource Center
The Jean and Mack Henderson Women's Center at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital helps to inform women about personal and family-related health care issues, including information about HPV and HPV-related illnesses. This hospital-based center has free literature on women's health, web-accessible computers for health care research and a variety of health-related books, DVDs and videos.