Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
What is it?
HPV is a virus with more than 100 different strains, including some that cause genital warts. In addition to producing warts on the hands and feet, approximately 40 types of HPV infect the genital area. The strains that cause genital warts are considered low-risk. High-risk strains of the virus can cause cancer; the most common cancer associated with HPV is cervical cancer. HPV is the most common STD in the nation, affecting at least 50 percent of those who are sexually active.
What are the symptoms?
The virus often has no symptoms. HPV infections frequently clear on their own within two years after infection. In some cases, genital warts may appear around the vagina, vulva, penis, scrotum, anus or rectum. Warts usually appear between six weeks and six months after infection, though it can take much longer. The warts may be too small to be noticeable. In fact, most people with HPV have no idea they’re infected.
How is it spread?
HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact; intercourse is not necessary to spread the virus.
How is it diagnosed?
HPV is usually diagnosed when warts are found or following the results of an abnormal Pap test (the high-risk strains of HPV cause changes in the cervical cells that are collected during Pap smears). Because the risk of cervical cancer increases in women over 30, HPV tests are frequently part of routine physical exams. The test screens cervical cells collected during a Pap smear for the presence of the virus.
How is it treated?
There is no cure or treatment for HPV; most infections clear on their own. A new vaccine to prevent HPV is available, but it is not recommended for anyone over 26, because most sexually active adults have already been exposed to the virus. The CDC recommends that all girls get the three-shot vaccine at age 11 or 12. Boys and young men aged 9 to 26 can also get vaccinated to protect themselves and their future partners. Epidemiologists believe the vaccine will prevent many deadly cases of cervical, anal, and other cancers.