Last updated: March 2, 2020
Kate Killoran M.D.
Obstetrics & Gynecology
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Living with HPV: Being diagnosed with HPV does not mean you cannot live a normal life. Let our doctors guide your next steps.
If you have been diagnosed with the human papillomavirus (HPV), know that you are not alone. In fact, approximately 14 million cases of HPV are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. It is estimated that as many as 79 million people are currently living with HPV, although many go undiagnosed.
We asked OBGYN Dr. Kate Killoran to lend her medical expertise on this important issue.
I have HPV. Does this Mean I will get Cancer?
Certainly not! Contracting HPV does not necessarily mean you will get cervical cancer. In fact, there are over 200 strains of HPV and only 40 -100 strains affect the genital area.
The strains that are not sexually transmitted can cause skin conditions such as warts on the hands or feet.
Only the 40-100 strains that affect the genitals (penis, scrotum, anus, rectum, vulva, vagina and cervix.) are sexually transmitted. Some of these strains can lead to genital warts or cervical cancer.
According to Planned Parenthood, HPV infections are common. In fact, most sexually active adults who do not receive the HPV vaccine will come into contact with HPV at some point in their lives.
The good news is many HPV infections show no symptoms. Often, your body is able to fight off the infection on its own. This is why many are unaware they were ever infected.
The Bad News
Unfortunately, some strains of HPV will cause symptoms that require treatment.
Genital warts are usually caused by two types of HPV: type 6 and 11. Genital warts are considered low-risk HPV because they do not cause cancer. However, they do require treatment which can be uncomfortable. Genital warts don’t always require treatment. Your immunity may take care of the lesions. Although as with all strains of HPV, you will never be able to completely clear the infection, it does become dormant and does not continue to cause symptoms.
Cancer: The majority of cancer caused by HPV is due to two strains: types 16 and 18. These are considered high risk HPV. While many are aware that HPV can lead to cervical cancer, many are unaware that there is also a risk of cancer in the vulva, vagina, mouth, throat and anus.
How is HPV Spread?
HPV is spread through close skin-to-skin contact with a partner. HPV can be spread even if your partner does not have any symptoms. Remember that many people with HPV are unaware that they even have it.
HPV can be spread when your penis, anus, vagina, vulva or cervix touches an infected partner’s genitals, mouth or throat. The infection is commonly spread during sex. HPV is not spread through bodily fluids and your partner does not need to have an orgasm for you to be at risk.
HPV is more commonly spread through vaginal and anal sex. Recent research has indicated there is a possibility that HPV can be spread outside of sexual activity.
A study published in the journal Sexual Health looked at 51 HPV transmission studies. Researchers found HPV in the genital tract of 51 virgins. We know that HPV can be spread through the use of sex toys or oral sex, but this research also points to other possibilities. These include the spread from manual genital stimulation (several of the studies showed evidence of hand-to-genital HPV transmittance) as well as from hard surfaces.
The second possibility is that you could pick up the virus from an infected surface. While the research points to this possibility, it is not to be taken as a medical fact.
Even so, to be on the safe side, it probably makes sense to avoid contact with unknown surfaces. For example, cover your genitals completely when in communal areas like the gym.
Symptoms of HPV
Being aware of HPV related diseases and their symptoms is always a good idea. Genital warts, cervical cancer, and head and neck cancer are all possible disorders caused by HPV infection.
Those with an HPV infection also need to ensure they don’t infect other if sexual active. How do you protect you and your partner from further STD transmission?
Your Guide to Living with HPV
Just because you have HPV does not mean that you cannot live a normal life. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and in most cases, just like with any other virus, your immunity takes care of it without causing any symptoms. However, it does not always go away. There are some considerations that you should take to protect any sexual partners you may have as well as safeguard your own health.
Protect your Partner
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) the best way to protect against HPV is to get vaccinated prior to becoming sexually active. However, if your partner is not infected, they may want to consider having the vaccination even if they are sexually active.
It is important to note that the vaccination requires more than one dose and will not be fully active until your partner has received all their vaccinations.
In fact, even those who have HPV can still benefit from receiving the vaccine as it may offer protection from other strains they do not have. Unfortunately, the HPV vaccine cannot offer any treatment or protection from the HPV strain you already have.
Tell your partner and encourage him or her to get vaccinated for the virus. Understand HPV symptoms like genital warts could arise in those with human papillomavirus types six and 11.
The FDA approved Gardasil to protect against both the high risk strains,16 and 18, as well as the low risk but genital wart causing strains 6 and 11. As of 2016 Guardasil 9 has been available which protects against 9 strains including 16, 18, 6, 11, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58.
Use Protection During Sex
Dental dams and condoms can offer protection during oral sex. Sex toys should also be used with condoms.
Get Screened for Cervical Cancer
Screening in the form of Pap tests is the best way of preventing cervical cancer if you haven’t had a vaccination against the virus.
The test is one of the most dependable cancer-screening tests at hand. What the tests do is detect irregular cells and precancerous changes on a woman’s cervix.
Early detection of these deviations paves the way for treatment before these could progress into being a type of cancer. This test can be done while having a pelvic exam. Your doctor will swab the cervix to gather cells that will be examined under a microscope.
Understand HPV Symptoms
Knowing what symptoms to look for are absolutely vital when living with HPV.
Genital warts may be itchy or uncomfortable. They can resemble cauliflower or they can be smooth and flat affecting various areas of the genital region including:
- Inside the vagina
- On the cervix
- Inside the anus
- On the vulva
- Inside or outside the anus
Cervical cancer is often asymptomatic in its early stages. Later stages may produce the following symptoms:
- Unexplained vaginal bleeding between periods
- Longer and heavier menstrual cycles
- Bleeding or pain after sex
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Persistent pelvic pain
- Bleeding after menopause
Is There a Cure for HPV?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for HPV, but there are ways to manage your symptoms. Genital warts can be removed by healthcare providers. Removal procedures may be uncomfortable and warts can reappear.
Cervical cancer can be screened for with pap smears. Getting regular screenings is important, especially if you have HPV. Pap smears can identify precancerous as well as cancerous cells on the cervix.
Around 85% of women who die from cervical cancer reside in developing countries. This is likely due to an inability to receive cervical screenings, prevention education and the HPV vaccination in their countries.
Get Your Questions Answered
Do you have questions about HPV? If you think you may have HPV or experiencing signs or symptoms of cervical cancer, talk to a doctor immediately. For confidential answers within minutes, you can connect with one of our doctors.
Disclaimer: This article provides general information and is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or medical condition. If you require specific advice, please consult one of our medical professionals through the app. However, in case of an emergency, please call 911.
About Kate Killoran M.D.
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