I was getting my son’s physical for school the other day and the doctor talked to us about HPV. What is it? HPV, or humanpapilloma virus, is a very common sexually transmitted virus. In fact, it is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States today. More than half of sexually active men and women are infected with HPV at some time in their lives. The good news is that there is now a vaccine called Gardasil to protect you from this sometimes deadly virus. Gardasil use to be given only to young women, but now it is recommended for girls, ages 11-26 AND males, ages 9-26. It is important to note that the vaccine is given before any sexual contact, because once someone is infected, the vaccine might not work as well or might not work at all. Women with the virus are at particular risk of developing cervical cancer and men will sometimes experience genital warts as a result of HPV.
In more detail, HPV is a virus of the epithelial cells that are found on the skin and also the vagina, vulva, anus, penis, mouth and throat. There are around 40 types of HPV and they range in severity. Some are without health risks and others lead to genital warts and even cancer. The word papilloma actually refers to the warts that may develop as a result of the virus. Although intercourse is the most common way of getting HPV, there are other ways to become infected, such as oral sex. The virus can also be passed through bodily fluids and mucous membranes. Mucous membranes certainly include genitals, but they also refer to the mouth, nose and throat. Therefore, there are ways of spreading the virus through the contact of these areas, and not necessarily only by sexual behavior. Kissing, sharing drinks and toothbrushes, and close contact to an infected person’s face can all contribute to the spreading of HPV. In rare cases, a mother who is infected with HPV can pass the virus onto her newborn during delivery. The baby may then develop an HPV infection of the genital region or upper respiratory system.
In many instances, symptoms of an HPV infection may never manifest. Even if you don’t initially develop any signs, symptoms can occur at a later time. Once you begin to show signs of the infection, you are able to transmit the disease to your sexual partners. The most common sign of an infection are warts within the genital region. The warts can appear as cauliflower-like clusters that show within the region of a woman’s vulva, the anal region, on the cervix or in the vagina. A man may develop signs of warts on the penis, scrotum or around the anus.
Sometimes when a woman gets a pap smear, the results of the test may indicate that there is an abnormality. In most cases, the abnormalities (meaning cells) will return to normal without any complications. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, some abnormalities, considered high grade, usually progress to cancers of the cervix, vagina or vulva. Other symptoms of an infection can include common warts, which appear on the hands, feet, elbows, wrists and face. Lesions can also appear on the tongue, tonsils, upper roof of your mouth, larynx and nose.
To protect yourself from HPV, take simple prevention methods. If sexually active, always use a condom. Try to maintain a monogamous relationship, or limit the amount of sexual partners. With common warts, you can prevent the spread of warts by trying not to pick at the warts or biting your nails. If you have warts on your feet, keep your feet clean. Always wear clean socks, and keep your feet dry. If you are pregnant and have an HPV infection, your doctor may recommend removal of the warts prior to your child’s delivery. Finally, protect yourself AND others by getting your daughter or son the vaccine Gardasil. To learn more about this important vaccine, consult a physician or visit the Gardasil website at: hpvinfo.com