By Lila Havens, Staff Writer, myOptumHealth
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. Many people have never heard of HPV and don't know that it causes almost all cases of cervical cancer. It's important to learn more about this "silent" infection and how to protect yourself from cervical cancer.
What causes HPV?
HPV is caused by a virus called the human papillomavirus. Some types of HPV cause papillomas, or warts.
There are low- and high-risk types.
What are the symptoms?
In most cases, HPV doesn't cause any symptoms. That's why so many people have it, but so few know about it.
Some low-risk types of HPV cause genital warts. They may occur around the vagina, penis or anus, or they may be inside where they can't be seen. It can be hard to tell the difference between genital warts and normal skin bumps.
How is HPV spread?
HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact with the genital area. It can be passed to a partner through vaginal, anal or oral sex.
Genital warts are very contagious. A person with HPV who has no warts or other symptoms can still spread the virus to a sex partner.
How is HPV diagnosed?
HPV can be diagnosed using an HPV test. If a woman has an abnormal Pap test, her doctor can do an HPV test to find out what type of HPV is causing the changes.
An abnormal Pap test doesn't mean you have cancer, even if it was caused by a high-risk HPV. Abnormal cervical cells are common and they often return to normal on their own in a few months. Very few HPV infections turn into cancer.
If you have been diagnosed with HPV, don't assume that you got it from your current partner. The virus can lie dormant in your body for weeks, months or even years before you find out you have it.
Can HPV be treated?
There's no treatment for HPV, but your immune system will probably fight the infection on its own. In most people, the virus goes away and can't be detected anymore after a year or two. Doctors aren't sure whether the body destroys the virus or whether it stays in the body at a low level.
Cervical cell changes caused by high-risk HPV can be treated to prevent them from turning into cancer. Even if the changes have progressed to cancer, it can almost always be cured if it is caught early.
Your doctor can treat or remove genital warts. However, since treatment doesn't kill the virus, the warts can come back. Don't try to treat them yourself.
Can HPV be prevented?
Probably not. HPV is so widespread that it's very hard to avoid. If you're sexually active, even in a long-term relationship, there's a good chance you've been exposed to some type of HPV. There's also a good chance that you will never know, because most types don't cause symptoms and are not harmful.
The important thing is to protect yourself from cervical cancer.
A vaccine is available that can prevent some types of HPV. To be most effective, the vaccine needs to be given before a girl becomes sexually active. Experts recommend the vaccine for girls at age 11 or 12, but girls from 13 to 18 or even older can get "catch-up" vaccinations. Women aged 19 to 26 should talk with their doctors to see if the vaccine is right for them.
These Web sites are for your informational use only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice. It may not represent your true individual medical situation. Do not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting a qualified health care provider. Also consult your healthcare provider before starting any medications or supplements or beginning or modifying any exercise program.
© 2012 OptumHealth, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of information on this page may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of OptumHealth, Inc.