HPV and Cervical Cancer

Although some twenty-four million Americans may have the human papillomavirus (HPV), more than 76 percent of women in the United States have not heard of this sexually transmitted virus, which is responsible for nearly 100% of all cervical cancers.

Symptoms of HPV

Visible genital warts occur in only one percent of sexually active adults infected with the HPV virus, and, unless your genital warts are located in a spot where they can be seen or felt, you may not even know you are infected. If the genital warts are inside the vagina, on the cervix, or in the anus, they can go undetected for a very long time as they are often skin-colored and painless, and rarely cause symptoms. If you have any unusual growths or bumps or experience any itching, pain, or abnormal bleeding, you should immediately consult your physician.

HPV and Cervical Cancer

There are certain types of the HPV virus which are classified as "high-risk" as they lead to abnormal cell changes, and have a higher-than-normal likelihood of causing genital, cervical, vulva, anus and penile cancer. Actual cervical cancer is relatively rare in the United States because most women today get Pap tests and will have abnormal cells removed before they can turn cancerous. The American Cancer Society predicts that 11,070 women will find out this year they have cervical cancer, and that roughly 3,870 women will die of the disease.

Diagnosis of HPV

A Pap test is the standard method to check for cervical cell changes, and it is recommended that all women have a Pap test at least once every three years, starting at age 21. The HPV test can detect high-risk types of HPV in cervical cells, so it is approved as a useful addition to the Pap test to determine if you require further testing such as a colonoscopy or biopsy. The HPV test is recommended to be given in conjunction with the Pap test in all women over the age of 30.

How HPV is Spread

Your risk of HPV increases with the number of lifetime sexual partners you have had, your age (young women, aged 20-24 are most likely to be infected) or being sexually active with men who have other partners at the same time. HPV is transmitted primarily through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity and can be spread through oral sex as well.

Treatment Options for HPV

There are currently no medical "cures" for the HPV infection, however the lesions and warts the virus causes can be treated using cryosurgery, which is freezing that destroys tissue, LEEP, which is the removal of tissue using a hot wire loop, or simply conventional surgery. Similar treatments will be used for external genital warts as well. A positive HPV test may not necessarily mean that you have cervical cancer, only that you are now in a "high-risk" group and need close evaluation by your doctor, who may order frequent Pap tests. Your doctor may also perform a colposcopy, in which a lighted magnifying device is used to closely examine cervical tissues.

Preventing HPV Infections

The only sure way to eliminate the chance of contracting HPV infection is to avoid all genital contact with other people. To reduce the risk you should have mutually monogamous sexual relationships only with uninfected partners, and while using condoms can help prevent HPV transmission, they are not foolproof. A vaccine, Gardasil, was approved for use in 2006 for girls and women aged 9-26, and this vaccine protects against several high-risk strains of HPV.

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