HPV Infection and Women’s Health

The Genital Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection.  And of all the sexually transmitted infections, it appears to be the most common.  It is contracted vaginally, anally, or orally.  It has been reported that of the more than 100 HPV types, only about 30 – 40 HPV types are sexually transmitted to the body (genital area or throat/mouth).  Therefore, not all HPV are transmitted sexually.  These are by skin-to-skin non-sexual contact with an infected person.  Usually, but not always, HPV disappears from the body over time because it is believed that the body’s immune system fights the virus off [2], depending on the risk level category that the HPV type falls under – high-risk or low-risk.  The low-risk type of HPV is the one that usually go away on its own.  However, the high-risk type doesn’t and can cause cervical cancer in women, as well as throat cancer.  It is commonly reported by Gynecologists that HPV can go undetected or “symptom-free” in the body for years after a sexual encounter.  This means that a woman who had her one and only sexual encounter 20 years ago can develop HPV 20 years later and experience no symptoms.  Women should be aware that they can contract HPV from an infected partner even though there has been no penetration of the vagina.  To contract HPV, the infected partner’s penis has to be in contact with the genital area (vagina or anus) or mouth.  Please be aware that men may not know that they have HPV because there are currently no tests to detect the virus in men.  Therefore, he may not know that he is transmitting this sexually transmitted infection to his partner.  Know your sex partner and their sexual history.  This information is important because your health may be at risk.

Symptoms of HPV

As mentioned previously, women can go for years being “symptom-free” from this virus.  However, some types of HPV produce symptoms.  Some symptoms are genital warts and abnormal cells in the body, especially in the cervical and throat areas.  These abnormal cells may turn into cancer sometime in the future.  The viruses that cause these symptoms are classified as a “high-risk” type.  Please note that the type of HPV that may cause cancer is not the same type that causes genital warts.  It has been noted that genital warts rarely turn into cancer.

Of the women who experience these symptoms, 90% of them clear the virus, whether it is of the “high-risk” type or the “low-risk” type, within one or two years [1].  However, some women do not clear the virus.  And in others, it may take a longer period of time to clear up.  In a recent study, researchers have found that African-American women take longer to clear the virus than white women.  According to the study’s author, Kim Creek, “black women are 40 percent more likely to develop cervical cancer and two times more likely to die from the disease than European or American white women.”  Additionally, a large number of African-American women, approximately 70%, had abnormal pap smears.  It is not clear as to why this is the case.  However, researchers seem to believe that the cause may be biological in nature [3].

Prevention of HPV

There is no 100% method, except for abstinence and a partner that is HPV free, which can prevent women from contracting HPV.  This is why you should take every possible precaution that you can think of if you are going to engage in any type of sexual encounter.  As mentioned previously, know your sex partner’s history and be careful if your partner is not your husband.  This information is very important, especially if you are going to allow a man to insert his penis in your mouth (oral sex).  For genital-to-genital contact, it is always best for your partner to wear a condom.  Additionally, for oral sex, it is also important to use some type of barrier between your mouth and his penis.

Another precaution that women can take is to get the HPV vaccine (Cervarix and/or Gardasil).  This is only effective if you have not had a sexual encounter or you do not have HPV.

Finally, every woman should get regular annual exams by their gynecologist or a health care professional at a clinic or hospital.  These exams may consist of breast exams and pap smears.  Pap smears and HPV tests can determine abnormal cells on your cervix and detect HPV.  Detecting HPV early can help prevent cervical cancer which is caused by HPV.  Once detected, you can receive treatment.

Treatment for HPV

There is no treatment for HPV, which sometimes go away on its own.  However, the symptoms can be treated.  Genital warts can be treated with medication.  Sometimes, they go away on their own.  Abnormal cells can be treated in order to prevent them from turning cancerous.  In this situation, your gynecologist may perform a Colposcopy or “Copo” in order to look microscopically at the cervix and remove a small portion of the cervix tissue for a biopsy in order to determine if the cells are precancerous.  Some of the treatment options for abnormal cells are Conization or “cone biopsy” (removal of the abnormal area or cells), Cryotherapy (liquid nitrogen is used to freeze the abnormal cells), Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure or LEEP (electric current is used to remove abnormal cells), and Watch and wait (watch the cells to see if the abnormal cells clear up on their own) [4].

It has been conclusively determined that women need annual checkups by their gynecologists or other health care professionals in order to detect and prevent HPV from becoming problematic within their bodies.  Your health should be your number one priority.  Therefore, stay informed, and search for information, such as this, on women’s health.

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References:

[1] American Cancer Society (n.d.). What are the symptoms of HPV?  Retrieved April 4, 2012 from American Cancer Society Website: http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerCauses/OtherCarcinogens/InfectiousAgents/HPV/HumanPapillomaVirusandHPVVaccinesFAQ/hpv-faq-symptoms-of-hpv

[2] CDC (n.d.).  Human Papillomavirus (HPV).  Retrieved April 3, 2012 from CDC Website:  http://www.cdc.gov/hpv/

[3] Mann, Denise (n.d.). HPV Infection Lasts Longer in Young Black Women: Study. Retrieved April 4, 2012 from WomensHealth.gov Website: http://www.womenshealth.gov/news/headlines/663264.cfm

[4] WebMD (n.d.). Is There a Cure for HPV? Retrieved April 5, 2012 from WebMD Website: http://www.webmd.com/sexual-conditions/hpv-genital-warts/hpv-treatment-is-there-hpv-cure

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