Understanding HPV– One of the Most Common Sexually Transmitted Infections

Gynecology physicians at Northern Florida's All About Women MD provide insight on the surprisingly common Human Papillomavirus

You probably learned in your high school sex ed class that HPV–human papillomavirus– is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). But what else do you know about HPV?

Did you know that over half of all sexually active men and women will have genital HPV at some point in their life? Do you know what the HPV vaccine protects against and who should get it? If not, read on to learn more about this very common infection, its treatment, and prevention.

What exactly is the Human Papillomaviruses HPV?

HPV, genital HPV, low-risk and high-risk HPV are several terms that you might hear regarding the virus. Here's how they differ:

  • Human papillomaviruses (HPV). HPV is a broad ranging term that refers to a set of over 100 viruses that occur within humans-- not all of which are transmitted sexually. These viruses, transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, cause inflammation and skin changes. Over the course of a lifetime, most people will become infected with some strain of HPV. Most infections do not cause symptoms and go away unnoticed, though sometimes they may cause warts on the skin called pappilomas. Strands can infect the hands, feet or face, while others infect the genitals.
  • Genital HPV. Forty of the over 100 types of HPV are sexually transmitted and affect the genital area. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), genital HPV is by far the most common STI, with an estimated 50% of all sexually active men and women having genital HPV sometime during their life. Women under the age of 30 are at the highest risk of infection.

There are two types of genital HPV-- low and high risk:

  • Low-risk HPV can sometimes cause genital warts, though it may resolve itself without ever presenting any symptoms. In women, these warts may grow in or on the anus, around the outside or inside of the vagina, or on the vulva, cervix, or groin. These warts vary in size and look. Some are small, flat, and fleshed colored. Or, they can look bumpy or even inflamed like cauliflower. Often they itch or burn.

  • High-Risk HPV often infects the mucous membranes that surround the opening of the cervix. They can cause cells to change, and these changes can sometimes lead to cancer. Like most other types of HPV, high-risk HPV usually causes no symptoms and goes away on its own. Other times however, high-risk HPV doesn't go away. These HPV infections present the highest risk for cervical cancer.

Spread and Treatment of Genital HPV

Genital HPV is spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact, most often through vaginal and anal sex. The body's immune system usually fights off HPV within two years, but fighting off the virus doesn't promise future immunity. You can in fact be infected more than once.

Using condoms reduces the rate of the infection, but because the virus can be spread merely from intimate skin contact, condoms do not fully prevent HPV.

If you have genital warts, you should not treat them on your own but contact your GYN or well woman physician. Your gynecologist in Gainesville or Lake City may recommend one of the following courses of treatment depending on how bothersome the warts are:

  • Wait to see if the warts clear on their own (most do within two years)
  • A prescription ointment
  • Electrocauterization (burning off the warts)
  • Laser surgery

Prevention of Cervical Cancer

The most dangerous potential complication of HPV is cervical cancer caused by high-risk HPV strains. For sexually active women, the best way to beat this cancer is to detect it early through regular Pap smears and HPV testing. For adolescents who are not yet sexually active, the HPV vaccine offers the best protection against cervical cancer.

  • Pap Smears: During their annual GYN exam, all women should get a Pap smear beginning at the age of 21. A Pap smear reveals any abnormal cell changes in the cervix that could indicate the potential for cervical cancer. Up to the age of thirty, women should get a Pap smear at least every three years or annually, depending on the advice of their well woman physician.

    After the age of thirty, women can get a Pap smear and an HPV test. The HPV test is done at the same time as the Pap smear and detects the virus that can cause the abnormal cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer. If both tests come back negative, you will only need them again in three to five years.

    If you test positive for HPV, it doesn't mean that you have or will definitely get cervical cancer - it just means that you are at a higher risk.

  • HPV Vaccine: A June 2013 study by the CDC found that the HPV vaccine has already reduced the rate of HPV by more than half in the targeted adolescent population. Both girls and boys are recommended to receive the three-series vaccine beginning at age 12, before the initiation of any sexual activity.

Contact Your Gynecologist With Questions

HPV is very common - you shouldn't be ashamed if you think you might have this virus. Instead, schedule an appointment with the knowledgeable and compassionate team of gynecology physicians at All About Women, MD in Gainesville and Lake City.

Our physicians and well woman care providers are here to address your questions and concerns about HPV, other STIs, or your general health. We invite you to browse our women’s health learning center and blog to learn more today.