Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common viral infection known to affect men and women alike. There are more than 100 types of HPV, out of which at least 13 types are cancer-causing. In fact, nearly all cases of cervical cancer can be attributed to HPV infections (1). Now you know why this infection is feared by a majority of people out there!
Have you noticed a sudden appearance of wart-like growths on your genitals or other body parts? Do you suspect that you could have contracted HPV? Stay calm and fix an appointment with your doctor immediately. To know more about this infection and how it can be treated, read on.
What Is Human Papillomavirus Infection?
It is a viral skin infection caused by the human papillomavirus that is passed from one person to another by skin-to-skin contact. HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections in both men and women (2). This condition is so common that most of the sexually active individuals may get it at some point in their lives, even if the number of their sexual partners is limited.
HPV infections are commonly known to cause skin or mucous membrane growths or warts. Different types of HPV infections can cause warts to grow in different parts of the body. While some HPV infections can cause warts to develop in your feet, other types of infections may cause warts to appear on your neck or face.
Although most HPV infections don’t lead to cancer, some types are known to cause cancer in the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Cancers of the anus, penis, vagina, vulva, and throat have also been linked to HPV infections.
The appearance of warts and other symptoms associated with HPV often vary depending on the type of the virus.
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Types And Symptoms Of HPV
There are over 100 types of HPV. Some of them may clear up without the need for medical intervention, whereas, the other types may have the potential to lead to cancer.
Low-Risk Types Of HPV
HPV 6 and HPV 11 are linked to around 90% of genital warts. HPV 11 is also known to cause changes to the cervix. Genital warts caused by this type of HPV may:
- Appear like cauliflower-shaped bumps
- Show up weeks or months after being exposed to the virus
Other types of warts associated with HPV infections are (3):
- Common warts – Rough, raised bumps that typically occur on the hands, fingers, or elbows. Such warts can be unsightly and painful and may also be susceptible to injury or bleeding.
- Plantar warts – These are hardy, grainy growths that occur on the heels of the feet. They can cause discomfort in the affected areas.
- Flat warts – Such warts are flat-topped but slightly raised lesions. They are often darker than your skin tone and can appear anywhere on the body. Children tend to develop these warts on the face, whereas, men get
them in the bearded area. Women tend to develop such warts on their legs.
The HPV virus may offer some protection against HPV 11 and also help prevent HPV 6.
High-Risk Types Of HPV
HPV 16 is the most common high-risk type of HPV that doesn’t result in any noticeable changes – although it is known to bring about some changes in the cervix. It is responsible for causing 50% of cervical cancers worldwide.
HPV 18 is another common high-risk type of HPV. Like in the case of HPV 16, HPV 18 also doesn’t cause any evident symptoms, but it can lead to the development of cervical cancer. Together, HPV 16 and 18 are responsible for about 70% of all cervical cancer cases worldwide.
How does this virus get into your body? What causes the infection? Let’s find out in the next section.
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What Causes Human Papillomavirus Infection?
HPV infections often occur when the human papillomavirus enters the body via a cut, abrasion, or a small tear in the skin. The virus is mainly transferred via skin-to-skin contact with an affected individual (2).
Genital HPV infections are contracted via sexual intercourse, anal sex, and skin-to-skin contact around the genital region.
Since the resulting warts are contagious, they can spread by contact with a wart or with anything that may have touched the wart.
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Some factors that can put you at higher risk of developing HPV infections are (4):
- Number of sexual partners – Having multiple sexual partners increases your risk of contracting HPV infections.
- Age – While common warts mostly occur in children, genital warts occur more in young adults and adolescents.
- Weak immunity – A weakened immune system due to medical conditions like HIV/AIDS or due to the use of immune system-suppressing drugs that are taken post organ transplants.
- Damaged or injured skin – A skin injury makes it easier for the virus to enter the body.
- Direct contact – Direct contact with the wart or using utensils that may have touched a wart.
It is best to contact a physician immediately if you are suffering from HPV infections.
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When To See A Doctor
See a doctor immediately if:
- You notice the appearance of warts in your genital area or other body parts.
- You find out that your sexual partner has genital warts or HPV infection.
- Your genital area is extremely itchy and sore.
Once you visit a doctor, you may be asked to go through the following tests to confirm HPV infection.
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How To Diagnosis HPV
Your doctor may begin by carrying out a physical examination. If the appearance of warts is observed, your condition may be diagnosed immediately.
However, in the absence of warts or other symptoms, the following tests may help confirm the condition. They are (5):
- Vinegar Or Acetic Acid Solution – Application of a vinegar solution to the infected genital areas turns them white. This may also help the doctor see the lesions that are otherwise difficult to see.
- Pap Test – A sample of cells from your cervix or vagina is collected and sent to the laboratory for analysis. Pap tests can also help reveal abnormalities that have the potential to lead to cancer.
- DNA Test – This test is conducted on your cervical cells. It can help recognize the DNA of the high-risk types of HPV that are linked to genital cancers.
While some warts go away on their own (like those in children), some may refuse to vanish, no matter what you do. This is when medical treatments come into play.
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How To Treat Human Papillomavirus Infection
There is a wide range of medications available that can help in getting rid of warts when applied topically. They include (6):
- Salicylic Acid – It helps to remove the layers of the wart, a little at a time.
- Imiquimod (Aldara, Zyclara) – Prescription creams made of this help enhance your immunity to fight HPV.
- Podofilox (Condylox) – It can help destroy the genital wart tissue.
- Trichloroacetic Acid – This chemical treatment can help burn off warts on the palms, soles, and genitals.
If medications fail to give you the desired results, your doctor can suggest removing warts via other procedures like (6):
- Cryotherapy: Freezing warts with liquid nitrogen
- Electrocautery: Burning warts with an electric current
- Surgical removal of the lesion
- Laser surgery
If you haven’t contracted any HPV infections, you can keep them at bay altogether by following the tips listed below.
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How To Prevent Human Papillomavirus Infection
- Wear shoes/sandals while using common pools and in the locker rooms. This can help prevent plantar warts.
- Avoid sexual intercourse with multiple partners. Instead, be in a monogamous sexual relationship.
- Use a latex condom.
- Get HPV vaccine (Gardasil 9) after consulting your doctor.
Even though all these tips are quite basic, they can be of great help in preventing certain HPV infections and their consequences.
Many out there might confuse HPV infection for HIV infection, given that both these conditions can be transmitted sexually. However, they are different diseases.
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HPV Vs. HIV
Some of the major differences between HPV (human papillomavirus) and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infections are:
- It is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases.
- It is caused by the human papillomavirus.
- HPV infections usually disappear on their own.
- When your body can’t fight the infection, HPV goes on to surface as genital warts. In some cases, it can also lead to cervical cancer.
- It is also a sexually transmitted disease.
- It is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus.
- It leads to the destruction of the white blood cells in your body, thereby making your body very less immune to many opportunistic infections
- If left untreated, HIV can lead to stage 3 HIV that is commonly referred to as AIDS.
HPV infections shouldn’t be taken lightly, and it is best to be aware of what complications it could lead to instead of regretting later in your life. Also, it is best to follow the tips discussed above to reduce your chances of developing the infection if you aren’t already infected.
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Expert’s Answers For Readers’ Questions
How can HPV infection be spread?
HPV can spread by skin-to-skin contact or contact with any utensils that may have been exposed to an infected wart. HPV infections can also pass from the mother to the baby during pregnancy, labor, or nursing.
Is HPV contagious?
Yes, HPV is a highly contagious infection that can spread from an infected individual to a non-infected individual during sexual intercourse or any other forms of contact with the infected area.
Can human papillomavirus infection kill you?
While HPV infection in itself cannot kill you, it can increase an individual’s risk of developing various cancers. So, yes, in this way, HPV can turn out to be deadly for some people.
What are the side effects of the HPV vaccine?
Are all types of HPV sexually transmitted?
Many HPV infections are transmitted sexually, but not all. Some infections can also occur when any part of the body comes in direct contact with an infected area.
- “Human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer” World Health Organization.
- “Human Papillomavirus (HPV), HPV-Related Disease, and the HPV Vaccine” Obstetrics And Gynecology, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Warts: Overview” Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Human Papillomavirus: The Usefulness of Risk Factors in Determining Who Should Get Vaccinated” Obstetrics and Gynecology, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Laboratory diagnosis of human papillomavirus virus infection in female genital tract” Indian Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Therapy of Human Papillomavirus-Related Disease” Vaccine, US National Library of Medicine.