HPV, or human papilloma virus, is a sexually transmitted virus that has probably been around for millennia. Like other STDs and STIs, HPV can be spread through unprotected sex, contact with saliva and blood, and other causes. Unlike other STDs, though, HPV has been linked to various forms of cancer. Read on to learn about the various strains of HPV, and how you might notice it on your body.
Learn about HPV in our second post about HPV.
The Discovery of Human Papilloma Virus
Before HPV had even been identified, epidemiologists made an observation about cancer. They noticed that cervical cancer was common among prostitutes, but rare among nuns who weren’t sexually active before entering the convent. In 1956, researchers discovered that the HPV virus exists. Now, researchers are aware of over 100 strains of HPV.
High and Low Risk Strains of HPV
As previously mentioned, there are several strains of HPV, and some of them are more dangerous than others. These types of HPV are conveniently divided into “high risk” and “low risk” strains.
High risk strains are associated with (rarely) causing cancer of the cervix, while low risk strains are associated with causing genital warts. Fortunately, genital warts do not cause genital cancer. They are usually found on the outer vagina, but can occasionally be located within the vagina or in the anal area. These warts can be irritating, and cause bleeding or itching. In most cases, however, genital warts do not carry serious health implications. But, these low-risk strains may not become apparent immediately after contracting the virus.
While high-risk HPV strains are very noticeable, low risk strains are not. Instead, they do not carry many symptoms with them, and can often only be detected by diagnostic testing. And, in many cases, it’s nearly impossible for specialists to determine when HPV was contracted. In fact, it’s possible for women to be diagnosed several weeks to years after exposure. It can also be difficult to pinpoint the source of the virus. People in a new relationship may assume they were infected by their current partner, but may instead have contracted it from someone years ago.
What Are the Symptoms of HPV?
The most prominent symptom of low-risk HPV is genital warts. These warts often appear to be small, flat lesions. These raised bumps bear some similarities to cauliflower. They are most common on the vulva, but can also appear near the anus, the cervix, or inside the vagina.
How Can You Prevent HPV Transmission?
It’s usually impossible to determine the likelihood of contracting HPV from an infected partner. So, it’s important to practice safe sex at all times.
While cleaning the vagina with a douche may seem like practicing good hygiene, it can actually increase the chances of STD contraction. This is because it removes some of the protective bacteria present in the vagina, and the vagina is self-cleaning.
Pap tests are designed to detect cervical cancer. While they cannot test directly for HPV, they can often find pre-cancerous signs early on. Women should receive pap tests every 3-5 years.
The HPV vaccine can also lower the chances of HPV transmission.
Many sexually active Americans will develop an HPV infection at some point, and the majority without knowing it. A strong immune system can defeat this infection in 2-3 years, for both low- and high-risk strains. Only in 5-10% of cases will the infection not be cleared in two years. Of this percentage, up to 5% will develop cancer, or a pre-cancerous disease. Patients in these situations should keep careful watch of their health. If you find lumps in or around these areas, be sure to consult a doctor.