While most HPV infections are benign, causing warts on areas of the body including the hands, feet, and genitals, there are certain strains that put a person at a higher risk of developing certain types of cancers.
HPV can infect anyone who is sexually active; many times, infected individuals are asymptomatic, meaning they display no symptoms of the virus.
Although most HPV infections resolve themselves, sometimes, they can remain dormant and later infect a new or existing sexual partner.
HPV can be transmitted to the infant during birth; this can cause a genital or respiratory system infection.
It is important to note that the strains of HPV that cause warts are different from the group of HPV strains that cause cancer.
Some factors increase the risk of contracting the HPV virus.
Common symptoms of some types of HPV are warts, especially genital warts.
Genital warts may appear as a small bump, cluster of bumps, or stem-like protrusions. They commonly affect the vulva in women, or possibly the cervix, and the penis or scrotum in men. They may also appear around the anus and in the groin.
They can range in size and appearance and be large, small, flat, or cauliflower shaped, and may be white or flesh tone.
Other warts associated with HPV include common warts, plantar, and flat warts.
Common warts - rough, raised bumps most commonly found on the hands, fingers, and elbows.
Plantar warts - described as hard, grainy growths on the feet; they most commonly appear on the heels or balls of the feet.
Flat warts - generally affect children, adolescents, and young adults; they appear as flat-topped, slightly raised lesions that are darker than normal skin color and are most commonly found on the face, neck, or areas that have been scratched.
Other types of HPV can increase the risk of developing cancer. These cancers include cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx, or the base of the tongue and tonsils. It may take years or decades for cancer to develop.
When should I get tested for HPV?
Tests to evaluate for HPV or HPV-related cervical cellular changes include a Pap smear, a DNA test, and the use of acetic acid (vinegar).
A Pap smear is a test that collects cells from the surface of the cervix or the vagina and will reveal any cellular abnormalities that may lead to cancer.
The use of a DNA test will evaluate for the high-risk types of HPV and is recommended for women 30 and older in conjunction with a Pap smear.
There is also a DNA test for HPV, which can be used alone without the need for concurrent Pap testing starting at age 25.
At times, a biopsy of any abnormal areas may be necessary.
Currently, there is no test available for men to check for HPV; diagnosis is made primarily on visual inspection. In certain situations, if men or women have a history of receptive anal sex, it may be advisable to speak with a doctor regarding the possibility of undergoing an anal Pap smear.
There is no treatment for the virus, but the symptoms can be treated.
Prevention is through the HPV vaccine.
Warts that result from HPV will often resolve without treatment.
However, there are medications that can be applied to the skin to remove the wart itself; these include over-the-counter (OTC) salicylic acid for common warts.
Prescription medications include:
In certain situations, surgical interventions may be necessary and include:
It is important to speak with a doctor about which treatment is best, depending on the type and location of the wart being treated.
It is also important to note that, although warts and cellular changes may be removed or resolved, the virus can remain in the body and can be passed to others. There is no treatment to remove the virus from the body.
Routine Pap tests and other types of screening can provide an early diagnosis, if cancer develops. Measures can be taken to treat any cancer and prevent it from developing.
Measures that can reduce the risk of contracting HPV include:
It is hard to prevent common warts. If a wart is present, people should avoid picking it or biting finger nails. For plantar warts, it is recommended that shoes or sandals be worn in public areas such as pools and locker rooms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend vaccination at the age of 11 to 12 years, to reduce the risk of cervical and other cancers developing in future.
The vaccine is given in two doses, 6 to 12 months apart. Catch-up vaccines are recommended for males up to the age of 21 years and females up to 26 years who did not receive the vaccination at a younger age. Gay and bisexual men are encouraged to have the vaccination up to the ages of 26 years.
Currently, there are three HPV vaccines on the market: Gardasil, Cervarix, and Gardasil 9. Speak with a doctor to see if vaccination is appropriate.