If you are sexually active, it is important to be aware of all the health risks that sexual activity can bring. Not only can sexual activity lead to an unplanned pregnancy, but it can also increase your chances of developing a sexually transmitted disease. Unfortunately, many STDs cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms and, if left untreated, can result in serious health complications. Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, is one of the most common STDs in the United Kingdom. Affecting both males and females, some strains of the HPV virus have been associated with genital warts as well as some types of cancers.
What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus is one of the most common STDs circulating throughout North America and Western Europe. This STD is caused by the human papillomavirus, of which there are more than 100 different strains. Approximately 30 of these virus strains are transmitted through sexual activity, which infect more than four million men and women every year in the UK. Some of those infected will experience the typical symptoms of infection while others will not. Additionally, some strains of the virus are associated with health complications, including cervical and penile cancer.
How is HPV Transmitted?
HPV is transmitted through direct, skin-to-skin contact with an infected person’s genitals. Typically, transmission occurs through:
- vaginal intercourse
- anal intercourse
- oral intercourse
Rarely, the HPV virus can be transmitted from mother to child during delivery.
Who’s at Risk for HPV?
Anyone who is sexually active is at risk for contracting the HPV virus. And, because symptoms are often invisible, transmission is particularly problematic. In fact, 50% of sexually active men and women will contract the disease at some point in their lives. Risk factors include:
- engaging in unprotected sexual activity
- having more than one sexual partner
- having a partner who has more than one sexual partner
Symptoms of HPV
Most men and women who are infected with the HPV virus have no symptoms. Instead, the virus simply lives in the mucus membranes of the skin, causing no outward signs of infection. However, certain strains of HPV lead to the development of genital warts. Genital warts can appear on the anus, penis, vagina, cervix, and vulva. Genital warts can be:
- pink, or flesh-colored
- flat or raised
- small or large
Genital warts may grow alone or in multiples, and sometimes take on a cauliflower shape. Genital warts can appear within a few weeks of infection or it may take months for them to appear. Genital warts tend to reoccur sporadically and you may suffer from numerous outbreaks before they eventually disappear.
Complications of HPV
Certain strains of HPV are associated with a number of serious health risks. In particular, some HPV strains appear to increase your risk of developing specific types of cancers, including vulvar, penile, and cervical cancer. Women with prolonged HPV infection are at particular risk for developing cervical cancer. In fact, more than 80% of women with cervical cancer have a history of HPV infection. For this reason, it is essential that every woman who is sexually active have regular pap smears. The pap smear can help detect any irregular cells in the cervix. With early detection, the vast majority of cervical cancer sufferers can be treated. It is important to note, though, that those HPV strains associated with cervical cancer generally do not cause any outward symptoms and rarely are associated with genital warts.
HPV and Pregnancy
HPV infection can also prove problematic during pregnancy. The strains of HPV that cause genital warts are particularly problematic, because genital warts can grow to large sizes during pregnancy. These large genital warts can make urination difficult or they can sometimes block the birth canal during delivery. This can necessitate a cesarean section delivery. Rarely, babies contract genital warts during the delivery process. Genital warts can develop in the throats of these babies, making breathing difficult. This can be potentially life-threatening and requires immediate treatment.
Most cases of HPV are diagnosed through physical examination. If genital warts are visible, your health care provider will likely be able to make this diagnosis easily. If genital warts are not visible, your health care provider will swab your genitals with an acetic acid. This vinegar solution will cause non-visible genital warts to turn white, enabling a diagnosis.
Because HPV strains that lead to cervical cancer almost never produce any symptoms, the only way of detecting this form of HPV is through regular pap smears. Having a smear test will alert your health care provider to any abnormal changes in your cervical cells that may be caused by the virus. If abnormal cells are found, an HPV test can be ordered which will look for HPV DNA in your cervical cells. The presence of HPV DNA in your cervical cells will indicate that further follow up or cervical cancer treatment is necessary.
Unfortunately, there are no HPV cures. Instead, it is up to your immune system to fight off the infection. However, for individuals affected by genital warts, there are a number of genital wart treatments available, including topical treatments and wart removal. These treatments can help to improve the appearance and symptoms associated with your genital warts. They cannot cure the HPV virus, though. Common treatments include:
- Cryotherapy: Cyrotherapy involves using nitrogen to freeze and remove the genital warts. This type of treatment is available from your local health care provider.
- Electrocautery: Electrocautery uses a wire loop that has been charged with an electric current to remove genital warts. This type of treatment usually requires anesthetic.
- Laser Therapy: Laser therapy utilizes intense laser light to remove large areas of genital warts. This therapy is performed in hospital under anesthetic.
- Imiquimod Cream: This cream can be self-applied and is designed to boost your immune system so that it can fight off the HPV virus.
The only way to completely avoid contracting HPV or genital warts is to abstain from sexual activity completely. However, there are some ways you can reduce your HPV risk if you choose to be sexually active:
- Use a condom each time you have sexual intercourse. Condoms can help protect you from the HPV virus. However, because condoms do not completely cover the skin surrounding the genitals, you can still get the HPV virus if you come into direct contact with genital warts.
- Limit your number of sexual partners. Only have sexual intercourse if you are in a monogamous relationship or if you know the sexual health of all your partners.
- Get checked frequently for any STDs, including gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia. These STDs can increase your risk for HPV.
- If you notice any symptoms of HPV, avoid having sexual intercourse and contact your health care provider.
Talk with other women about the symptoms of HPV, like vaginal warts, in our STD forum.