Human Papillomavirus Infection: Things You Must Know
There is a virus ready to affect your body the moment your immunity shows the slightest dip. The onset of the recent pandemic has increased our general awareness about our health and possible diseases incredibly. One of the silent pandemics the world is still suffering from is cancer. This has been there for a long time mostly without a cure. Cervical cancer is also becoming a growing concern worldwide affecting a few men and mostly women. Its main cause is HPV or human papillomavirus.
What are the ways this virus attacks? Is it contagious? Is there any cure?
What is Human Papillomavirus Infection?
The widely popular Human papillomavirus (HPV), can affect different parts of your body. There are over 100 types, including strains that cause warts on different parts of your body.
Roughly 30 HPV strains can affect your genitals, this includes your vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, scrotum, rectum and anus. Most of these are sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that pass on through skin-to-skin contact. However, the majority of genital HPV strains are harmless, including those responsible for genital warts. But others can be potentially high-risk variants, which may lead to cervical cancer. Early detection can lead to better results and prevent cancer from becoming severe. This leads us to the next question: Are all warts HPV?
Yes. All warts happen due to HPV, but all forms of HPV do not form warts. But whether or not these are fatal is the main concern. The HPV strains which lead to genital warts are nuisances. The other types of HPV lead to:
- Flat Warts: smooth, flat-headed, fleshy or brownish-coloured bumps.
- Plantar Warts: Small rough growths around the balls of the feet.
- Common Warts: Small, grainy skin growths on your fingers or hands. These warts are transmitted by touch.
- Periungual and Subungual Warts: These happen around your nails and fingers and disappear on their own.
The type of HPV that can progress to cancer doesn’t cause warts. Which brings us to the next question: How is HPV related to cervical cancer?
HPV type 16 and type 18 can cause cervical dysplasia. Simply put this changes the cells of your cervix, the opening between your vagina and your uterus in women. When it is left untreated, it tends to advance to cervical cancer. Up to the age of 30, most HPV strains clear up by themselves. If found during a pap smear, it is advisable to perform regular screening to ensure the risk is eliminated at the onset. This then brings up the next question: Who is at a higher risk of getting HPV?
- Anyone can be infected with HPV if they come in contact with a partner with HPV. It can spread via intercourse, oral sex, anal sex or other close genital contact.
- Women are at a greater risk than men. Which is why HPV tests and Pap tests are not generally recommended for them.
- If you’re HIV positive, your immunity will not be able to counter HPV.
- If you identify as male, have a penis and have intercourse with a person with a penis, then you may also be at greater risk of contracting cervical cancer via HPV strains. In this case, Anal Pap Tests are prescribed.
Irrespective of your reproductive anatomy, it’s vital to prevent HPV by either getting vaccinated and/or practising safe sex.
You Can Also Read: All you need to know about cervical cancer | Know your risk
What Causes Human Papillomavirus Infection?
First and foremost one must understand how one can get an HPV infection.
- Genital HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact during intercourse, oral sex and anal sex.
- Genital HPV can be transmitted by contact with the vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, scrotum, rectum and anus of an infected partner.
- Hand-to-genital contact can also lead to HPV infection. However, this type of transmission is less likely and is researched less.
- If you’re pregnant with an HPV infection genital wart, it’s possible that the baby will get it too. In some rare cases, the infection may cause a non-cancerous growth in the baby’s voice box.
HPV is highly contagious since it spreads easily via skin-to-skin contact. No body fluids have to be exchanged either, so it will not spread through ejaculation (cum).
What are the Symptoms of HPV Infection?
Genital HPV doesn’t usually come with any symptoms. The only visible symptom is a wart in your genital area. These are rough, cauliflower-like lumps that suddenly start growing on your skin. The timeline for the infection and the wart is not defined. It may appear weeks, months or even years after you’ve been infected. The only saving grace is that these are harmless.
The rest of the variants don’t have any symptoms. The only time the symptoms surface is when they progress to cancer. With cervical cancer, we must keep in mind that having HPV does not guarantee developing cancers.
What are the Treatments for HPV Infections?
The first step to any treatment is diagnosis. The doctor/ specialist will advise the following tests:
- Pap smear: A pap smear is the best way to detect cervical dysplasia.
- HPV test: HPV tests can detect high-risk strains.
- Colposcopy: Your healthcare provider might suggest a colposcopy if your Pap smear results show abnormal cells. A part of the tissue might be sent for biopsy to assess whether there is any scope for cancer.
- Visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA): A vinegar-based solution is placed on your cervix. The abnormal cells will turn white to indicate the presence.
When the virus’s presence is confirmed, treatments will be prescribed. However, please note that once you get HPV it will never leave your body. So your healthcare partner will provide means to manage the situation by:
- Cryosurgery: Here the warts are frozen, and abnormal cells are destroyed with liquid nitrogen.
- Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP): A special wire loop is used to remove warts on your cervix.
- Electrocautery: Here the warts are burnt out using electrical current.
- Laser therapy: Using intense light, warts or abnormal cells are destroyed.
- Cold knife cone biopsy (Conization): In this case, a cone-shaped piece of cervical tissue containing abnormal cells is removed from the affected area.
- Prescription cream: Medicated cream is directly used to destroy warts.
- Trichloroacetic acid (TCA): This chemical application treatment burns off warts.
You Can Also Read: 10 Best Gynaecologists to Visit in Delhi-Gurgaon
How to Prevent HPV Infection?
Since the only way to prevent HPV is by abstaining from sex, here are some realistic ways in which you can protect yourself and your loved ones:
- Get vaccinated: The only cancer which is treatable is cervical cancer. So getting the HPV vaccine is one of the best ways to prevent the infection.
- Practising safer sex: Protect your partner by getting tested for HPV or cervical cancer periodically. HPV can spread through oral sex as well. So be careful about who you kiss.
- Get tested: You should start getting regular pap smears from age 21 (or whenever you become sexually active). From ages 30 to 65, you may need routine pap smears or HPV tests based on your test results.
To conclude, HPV is a cause of concern but it can be prevented from escalating into cancer. As per WHO, the Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the name of a group of 200 known viruses, which can cause genital warts or cancer. Our body is able to control up to 90% of the existing HPV in our bodies, but a persistent infection can lead to Gynae, Uro and Cervical cancers. While HPV contributes to only 5% of all cancer cases worldwide, women are more likely to get it. Therefore a regular screening is essential.
At the CK Birla Hospital, we understand the importance of being a reliable healthcare provider, especially in cases that need extra care. Our Gynae and Cancer specialists will not only help you prevent these morbid diseases but also guide you towards early detection, protection and treatment. Our judgement-free approach ensures we give the best possible treatment for your problem in the most compassionate and caring manner. To reach out to our sexual health experts book your appointment here.
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