What is it?
HPV stands for human papillomavirus. There are more than 100 types of HPV.
Note: HPV is a different (and much more common) virus than HSV (Herpes) or HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus).
There are 3 categories of HPV:
- Those that cause an abnormal pap smear in women (pre-cancerous)
- Those that cause warts (both genital and otherwise)
- Those that have no discernible symptoms (asymptomatic)
There are 2 strains that cause the majority of abnormal pap smears in women, they are #16 and #18. These are particularly high risk because if left untreated, they can lead to cancer of the cervix. These strains do not cause warts.
There are 2 strains that cause the majority of genital warts, they are #6 and #11. Warts can appear and disappear, they can be transmitted even if you can’t see them, and they can grow both inside and outside the genitals.
There are over 40 different types of sexually transmitted HPV and over 150 other types (like plantar warts on your feet or warts that grow on your hand). Warts that grow in non-genital places on your body cannot be transmitted to the genitals. It is estimated that 3 out of 4 sexually active people will get genital HPV at some point in their lives. Many will never know.
How do I get it?
You can get HPV through any genital touching. Some examples are:
- genital to genital
- hand to genital
- mouth to genital
- genital to anus
- hand to anus
- mouth to anus
- sharing sex toys
You can be exposed to HPV and have no symptoms for months or years (or never have symptoms), although the most common time for exposure to development of warts is 4 weeks to 8 months. Because of that, you may not know how or when you got it.
Warts are most commonly felt as raised bumps, but many are so small they go unnoticed. Occasionally new ones will be slightly itchy, but most do not feel burning or sore.
HPV strains that can cause cervical cancer can be tested for with a pap smear. While there are tests to determine if you have HPV, none are given routinely. Doctors rely on visual inspection and only in rare cases are biopsies performed.
Condoms are fairly effective, but the virus can be transmitted where the condom doesn’t cover, such as the testicles or vulva. A female condom is somewhat more effective because it covers a greater area.
There is also a vaccine, available to both men and women. Generally it’s given to those between the ages of 9-26 — it is recommended for those who are not yet sexually active.
The strains of HPV that cause abnormal pap smears are treated in ways depending on the location and how abnormal the cell changes are. Some common methods are LEEP, freezing, and burning the abnormal cells in the cervix.
Warts can be frozen, cut off, burned off, or treated with a topical cream. Freezing and burning can generally remove warts in a couple visits, topical creams are applied once daily for up to 8 weeks.
If HPV is not treated, many cases will clear on their own. When an HPV infection has been cleared, the virus is gone from the body, and the antibody can be detected. The antibody does not necessarily protect against being infected again by the same or another strain of HPV, it just shows that the person has been exposed to it.
If one of the high-risk strains of HPV are not treated, it can lead to cervical cancer. If warts are not treated, they can be spread to a partner. Just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they can’t be spread.