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What is HPV?

Human papillomavirus (more commonly known as HPV) is the name of a group of viruses that include more than 100 different strains or types, at least 40 of which are sexually transmitted. They can infect the genital areas of both women and men, including the skin of the vulva (area outside of the vagina), penis, or anus, and the linings of the vagina, cervix, or rectum. Genital HPV infections are very common in sexually active individuals. By age 50, at least 80 percent of women will have acquired one or more HPV types. About 6.2 million Americans get a new HPV infection each year. Most HPV infections go away on their own without any specific treatment. Some HPV types are called "high-risk" types, because they have the potential to cause cervical cancer. Other types are called "low-risk" HPV types, and they may cause mild Pap test abnormalities or genital warts.

Common HPV Questions Answered

How, when or from whom can I get HPV (Human Papilloma Virus)?

  • Genital HPV is a sexually transmitted viral infection.
  • It is usually impossible to know from whom or when one acquired HPV because most people don?t know they have it.
  • HPV is very common, probably the most common, sexually transmitted disease.
  • By the time an HPV-related problem is detected, regular sex partners are usually already infected; however, determining who transmitted the infection to whom is usually not possible.
Does HPV cause cervical cancer?
  • HPV causes cervical cancer, but regular Pap and/or HPV testing, and appropriate follow-up treatment prevent most women from getting cervical cancer.
  • Other factors (immune system, other STDs, smoking, genetics, hormonal contraceptive use) might increase the risk.
How can I prevent giving or getting HPV?
  • Lifetime mutual monogamy or abstinence are the best possibilities for prevention.
  • Most sexually active people will get HPV.
  • Consistent condom use may reduce the risk of infection, but if HPV is present on uncovered skin, transmission is possible.
  • Two vaccines against HPV are approved by the FDA for females ages 9 to 26. One named Gardasil protects against four HPV types (the two (16 and 18) that cause the majority of cervical cancers and the two (6 and 11) that cause most genital warts). The other named Cervarix protects against two HPV types (16 and 18). The vaccine is highly effective in preventing infection with these 4 (or 2) HPV types; however, if a girl or woman is already infected, vaccination will not prevent disease from that type.
Can a person get or give HPV through oral sex or from hands?
  • Although HPV can be transmitted this way, it does not happen very often.
  • Recent studies indicate a relationship between HPV and some head and neck cancers, but the route of acquisition is not clear.
What should I tell my partner about HPV?
  • Most sexually active people will get HPV.
  • For most, HPV is only temporary.
  • The majority of people do not develop symptoms so they do not know they are infected.
  • Understanding the psychological, social and physical impact of HPV will help put the virus in perspective.
Can partners re-infect each other?
  • Reinfection with the same type of HPV is unlikely.
  • Partners are likely to share the same HPV type.
  • No studies have been conducted regarding re-infection or the effects of treatment on infectivity.
Will I always have HPV?
  • It is difficult to predict when HPV is no longer contagious
  • Experts disagree on whether or not the virus is eliminated from the body or whether it is reduced to undetectable levels.
Will HPV affect a pregnancy or a baby?
  • Regular Pap and/or HPV testing provides early diagnosis of precancerous changes on the cervix and allow use of cervical treatments that can preserve fertility.
  • During pregnancy, warts and cervical abnormalities may grow faster.
  • Warts may have to be removed if they are bleeding or obstructing the birth canal.
  • HPV is rarely passed on from mother to child; in rare instances, HPV types 6 and 11 can cause wart-like growths in the baby?s throat; this condition is called Juvenile Onset Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis (JORRP).
What are the best treatment options for HPV?
  • The human papillomavirus itself is never treated; however, symptoms and signs of the virus are.
  • Providers treat warts by freezing, burning or cutting off the warts, or by prescribing creams that are self-applied.
  • Providers don?t usually treat minor Pap smear abnormalities because most minor abnormalities will go away on their own.
  • The most common treatments for abnormal Pap smears are cryotherapy (freezing of abnormal cells) or LEEP (the excision of the abnormal cells).
  • Patients should discuss all treatment options with their provider before deciding on one treatment.

Adapted from: American Social Health Association, HPV News. Vol. 11, No.1, Spring 2001.

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Last updated:
Tuesday, 16-Dec-2014 15:06:05 PST