What Is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?

The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the name for a group of more than 100 virus strains that are linked to a variety of health issues ranging from warts to certain forms of cancer. HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact, including vaginal, oral, and anal intercourse. The warts can develop anywhere the skin is infected with the virus, including hands, feet, mouth, and genitalia. Though less common, some HPV infections are known to cause cervical cancer, and are possibly associated with cancers of the vagina, anus, penis, and the back of the throat (oropharyngeal cancer). HPV is the most common of all sexually transmitted infections (STIs). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 79 million Americans, mostly in their teens and twenties, may be carrying the virus. To learn more about HPV health risks, treatments, and prevention, turn to the women’s health team at Baptist Health.

What Are the Symptoms of HPV Infection?

The most frequent symptom of HPV infection is warts. These can develop anywhere the virus penetrates the skin or mucous membranes. HPV infections play a role in the development of all major wart types:

  • Common warts: Common warts are the raised, ridged bumps that often appear on hands and feet. They are typically unsightly rather than a serious health problem.
  • Plantar warts: Plantar warts form on the bottoms of feet. They can be a source of pain when walking or standing.
  • Flat warts: Flat warts are slightly elevated lesions appearing most frequently on faces and necks in children and men and on legs in women.
  • Genital warts: Genital warts are whitish, textured lesions appearing on the male or females gonads, anus, and the surrounding areas. They can be tender to the touch but rarely develop into cancers.

Most HPV strains are linked to warts on the hands and feet. A few of the low-risk, sexually transmitted strains are associated with genital warts. A less common but more serious manifestation of an HPV infection is cancer. Among these are:

  • Cervical cancer: A woman’s cervix is located at the lower end of her uterus. Medical research suggests that nearly all cervical cancers are related to HPV infection.
  • Other cancers, including vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal, and oropharyngeal forms: There is some scientific support for HPV infections being involved in any or all of these cancers, typically resulting from some form of sexual intercourse. It is important to note that symptoms of an HPV infection, whether warts or cancer, can take years to develop. There is often a delay between viral contact and the medical condition associated with it.

What Causes HPV?

The cause of an HPV infection is the human papillomavirus. The virus typically enters the body through small cuts or abrasions in the skin, or through the physical intimacy of sexual intercourse. The following factors increase the possibility of contracting an HPV infection: 

  • Frequent physical contact, especially in public areas such as gyms or swimming pools
  • Skin breaks or blemishes
  • A high number of sexual partners
  • A compromised immune system
  • Relative youth (with regard to warts)

How Is HPV Diagnosed?

Your physician can typically diagnose warts by means of visual inspection. However, because of their flatness, genital warts can be harder to detect. In some cases, your physician may apply an acetic acid solution to whiten any suspicious formations, which eases identification. There are two primary diagnostic tests for cervical cancer:

  • Pap test: A pap test involves the collection of a cell sample from the cervix or vagina, which is sent to a medical lab for analysis. The analyst will be looking for abnormal cells signaling the possible presence of cancer.
  • DNA test: The pap test is sometimes supplemented with a DNA test, particularly in women over 30 years old. The goal of the DNA test is identifying whether high-risk strains of the virus, including HPV 16 and HPV 18, are present as a precondition to cancer.

How Is HPV Treated?

There is no cure for an HPV infection, so treatment is focused on limiting or managing symptoms. Warts can be eliminated by a number of means, though they tend to reoccur:

  • Imiquimod: Imiquimod is a topical cream that assists your immune system in fighting an HPV-caused wart. It can generate redness and swelling where applied.
  • Podofilox: Podofilox is another topical cream. It is specifically designed for genital warts. Side effects include burning and itching at the application site.
  • Salicylic acid: Salicylic acid is the chief ingredient in over-the-counter wart-removal medications, such as Compound W. It isn’t meant for use on the face.
  • Trichloroacetic acid: Trichloroacetic acid is another chemical aid for burning off warts. Like other wart-removal medications, it can be a source of redness and irritation. Additional wart-removal methods include electrocautery, or burning a wart with an electrical current, and cryotherapy, or freezing a wart with liquid nitrogen. Warts can also be excised surgically, with cutting tools or lasers.

Treating Cervical Cancer

If a pap test returns positive from the lab, your physician will likely conduct another exploratory procedure called a colposcopy. This will involve a more thorough visual inspection of the cervix using a colposcope, as well as the collection of tissue samples (a biopsy) for further analysis. If precancerous or cancerous lesions are found, they will be targeted for elimination. The medical techniques for doing so include surgery, cryosurgery, an electrosurgical procedure with the acronym of LEEP, and cold-knife conization, which involves the surgical removal of part of the cervix. HPV-caused warts and cancers are better avoided than treated. Safe sex practices, HPV vaccination, and, for women, regular pap tests, are the primary means of keeping an HPV infection at bay.

Learn More about Human Papillomavirus from Baptist Health

For more information about HPV diagnosis and treatment, or to schedule an appointment with our physicians, please contact the Baptist Health women’s services team.

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