Why is it so essential to prevent?
The human papillomavirus has been in the news a lot in recent years. Partly because of the high incidence of cervical cancer associated with it, but also because of the development of a vaccine to prevent it. What are the concerns surrounding both of these? What else should you know about the condition?
The human papillomavirus (HPV) enters your body through a cut, abrasion, or small tear in your skin, usually during sexual intercourse. There are over 100 types of HPV, making them a common infection. Some cause growths (warts), while others cause different cancers, especially cervical cancer in women. However, it can result in cancers of the anus, penis, vagina, vulva, and back of the throat.
Most likely, your immune system will get rid of an HPV infection before it creates warts. If warts do develop, they will vary in appearance depending on the type of HPV involved. Genital warts are usually painless flat lesions, small cauliflower-like bumps, or tiny stem-like protrusions. For women, genital warts are generally on the vulva but can appear near the anus, on the cervix, or in the vagina. For men, warts show up on the penis/scrotum or around the anus. Common warts materialize as rough, raised bumps and on the hands and fingers. Typically, they’re just unsightly but can be painful and be susceptible to injury or bleeding. Plantar warts are hard, grainy growths that emerge on the heels or balls of your feet. They can cause discomfort. Flat warts are flat-topped, slightly raised lesions that can appear anywhere. Children usually get them on the face, men get them in the beard area, and women get them on the legs.
When it comes to cervical cancer, nearly all types are caused by HPV infections. It can take 20 years or longer for cancer to develop after being infected with the virus. Unfortunately, there aren’t any noticeable symptoms associated with the HPV infection or early cervical cancer. This is why it’s vital women have regular screenings to detect any precancerous changes in the cervix. The current recommendations are that women between 21 – 29 have a Pap test every three years and women 30 – 65 have a Pap test every three years or every five years if they have an HPV DNA test done simultaneously. For women over 65, they can stop testing if they’ve had three normal Pap tests in a row or two normal HPV DNA and Pap tests.
Several things can increase your chances of having an HPV infection. The number one is having multiple sexual partners or being with a partner that’s had numerous partners. Since warts are highly contagious, if you come into contact with them or surfaces that have been contaminated, your risk is higher. If you have a weakened immune system or damaged skin, you’re more likely to contract HPV. When it comes to complications, the primary one is cancer. Besides this, you can develop lesions on your tongue, tonsils, soft palate, or within your larynx/nose.
Often, warts go away without treatment, especially in children. However, there’s no cure for the virus, so they can reappear in the same place or other places. Medications are used to get rid of warts. Typically, it’s applied directly to the lesion and takes many applications before they’re successful. Some examples are salicylic acid (over-the-counter), imiquimod (prescription), podofilox (prescription), and trichloroacetic acid (over-the-counter). If medications don’t work, your doctor might suggest removing warts via another method, such as freezing with liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy), burning with an electrical current (electrocautery), surgical removal, and laser surgery.
If you have an abnormal HPV or Pap test, your gynecologist will perform a colposcopy procedure. This allows them to take a sample of any of the cells of your cervix that look abnormal. If any precancerous lesions are identified, they need to be removed. Options include freezing (cryosurgery), laser, surgical removal, loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), and cold knife conization. A LEEP procedure involves using a thin looped wire charged with an electric current to remove a thin layer of a section of the cervix. Cold knife conization is a surgical procedure that entails removing a cone-shaped piece of the cervix.
To prevent HPV warts, it depends on the type. For common warts, it can be difficult. If you have one, don’t pick at it, and don’t bite your nails (this will help avoid spreading them). For plantar warts, wear shoes or sandals in public pools and locker rooms. To prevent genital warts, be in a mutually monogamous sexual relationship, reduce your number of sex partners, and use a latex condom every time you have sex.
When it comes to preventing cervical cancer (and genital warts), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Gardasil 9 vaccine for males and females 9 – 45. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all 11- and 12-year-olds receive two doses of HPV vaccine at least six months apart. However, it can be given as early as age 9. Teens and young adults who begin the vaccine series later, at ages 15 through 26, should receive three doses of the vaccine. If you’re age 27 to 45, discuss with your doctor whether they recommend that you get the HPV vaccine. Ideally, the vaccine is given before a person has sexual contact and are exposed to HPV. Once someone is infected with HPV, the vaccine might not be as effective or might not work at all. If given before someone is infected, the vaccine can prevent most cases of cervical cancer.
There’s no question you don’t want to have HPV or any of its complications, so make sure to do your part to prevent getting it. If you have any questions or concerns about human papillomavirus, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Human Papillomavirus page at https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/default.htm