Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted virus that is passed on through genital contact. At least 50% of people who have been sexually active will have HPV at some time in their lives. About 40 types of HPV are likely to infect the genital area in both males and females.
There are more than 100 types of genital HPV that have been assigned to a number in the order of their discovery. They are broken up into two different groups: low-risk and high-risk. Around 12 types of HPV are known as low-risk since they cannot cause cervical cancer in females. More than a dozen types of HPV are considered to be high-risk, because they may cause abnormal cell growth on the cervix. If the abnormal cells are not removed, they can slowly develop into cervical cancer. Roughly 70 percent of cervical cancers are caused by HPV types 16 and 18.
Transmission can occur in the genitals, anal, or oral regions. Although HPVs are usually transmitted sexually, doctors cannot say for certain when infection occurred. About 6 million new genital HPV infections occur each year in the United States. Most HPV infections occur without any symptoms and go away without any treatment over the course of a few years. However, HPV infections sometimes persist for many years, with or without causing detectable cell abnormalities.
Typically the first visible signs of the HPV virus are genital warts. They usually appear as a bump or group of bumps that can resemble cauliflower-type growths. The warts can be large or small and flat or raised. Genital warts can be found on the inside and outside of the vagina. It can take weeks, months or even years before the warts appear after having sex or any genital-to-genital contact with an infected partner. Cervical cancer caused by HPV usually does not manifest any symptoms until it is fairly advanced. An annual PAP smear test is often the only way that cervical cancer can be detected.
The most absolute way to eliminate risk for genital HPV infection is to refrain from any genital or sexual contact with another individual. Even those who are sexually active can avoid HPV if they are in a mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner. However, it is difficult to determine whether a partner who has been sexually active in the past is currently infected. Condoms provide limited protection since they still allow some genital-to-genital contact between partners.
There is no cure available for HPV. Oral medications may temporarily cause the warts to resolve. Akin to Herpes, the warts may also recur and need to be retreated at a later date. The real goal in treatment is to make the patient aware of the potential risks associated with HPV, since most diagnoses occur in the presence of an abnormal PAP smear test.
Since HPV is now indicated in a serious type of cancer, scientists are actively working to better methods for HPV diagnosis. There is also research into a possible vaccine at a future date. As of now, the medical community is exerting its efforts toward education of the public about HPV, so that women will be certain not to skip their recommended yearly gynecological exams. Those who have genital warts or who have had contact with someone with HPV should seek cosultation discuss their concerns with a physician.