What is HPV?
The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection today. There are over 100 different strains of HPV. The good news is that many of them are not dangerous and that your body is able to cure you of the virus all on its own. However, some types of HPV cause genital warts and others have been linked to cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus, oral cavity, and throat.
It is estimated that at least 75% of sexually active people will have a genital HPV infection sometime in their life. It is possible to have an HPV infection without any signs or symptoms and thus unknowingly spread the disease. In Canada, the highest rates of HPV infections are found in people under the age of 25.
How is HPV Transmitted?
HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact with the penis, scrotum, vagina, vulva, or anus of a person who has HPV. HPV can infect anyone who has ever had a sexual encounter even without penetration. Touching a partner's sex organs with your mouth (oral sex) can transmit HPV to the mouth or the sex organs.
Condoms do not provide full protection because the virus can be present outside the area a condom covers. It is still very important to wear a condom for oral, anal, and vaginal sex as it reduces transmission of HPV and helps prevent other STIs!
What are the Symptoms?
There may be no signs or symptoms. Abnormal Pap smears are often the first sign that HPV is present. There may be itching or local soreness. If infected with a strain that causes genital warts the appearance can vary. The warts can be white, flesh coloured, brownish or pink. They can look like miniature cauliflowers or be completely flat.
In women, genital warts can appear on the vulva, urethra, cervix, vagina, anus and or thighs. In men, warts can appear on the penis, scrotum, anus, thighs and or inside the urethra. Genital warts usually develop within 3 months of contact.
What about Treatment for HPV?
Both partners should be examined and treated. Treatment can consist of chemical applications, freezing (cryotherapy), electrocautery, laser, or surgery. Get your PAP test! The Pap test is the only way to detect abnormal cells in your cervix that could lead to cervical cancer later in life. Pap tests are your number one screening defense against cervical cancer.
How do I prevent an HPV Infection?
Limit your number of sexual partners. Always wear a condom. Even though condoms do not completely protect you, they still may reduce transmission of HPV and will certainly protect against other sexually transmitted infections.
There is a vaccine available that helps prevent infection of the two most common strains of HPV linked to genital warts and the wo most common strains of HPV linked to cervical cancer. Talk to your doctor. For more information, check out hpvinfo.ca