Of all of the sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, HPV is the most common. There are more than 40 HPV types that can infect the genital areas of males and females.
These infections are not limited to affecting the genitals, however. They can also affect the mouth and throat and, in some instances, people who are infected will not be aware of it.
HPV is not the same as herpes or HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). These are all viruses that can be passed on during sex, but they cause different symptoms and health problems.
For most people, the body’s immune system will naturally "clear" the infection within a two year period but according to EmpowHER writer Bonnie Diraimondo, RN, an HPV expert, the virus actually goes dormant in the body and never really leaves.
Many people do not develop symptoms. But in certain cases, the infection can causes the following:
• Genital warts can grow and change, but they will not become cancer. They come in all shapes and sizes, from small and bumpy to raised and flat. They can even be shaped like cauliflower.
• Cervical cancer and other, less common but serious cancers, including cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (back of throat including base of tongue and tonsils).
• RRP (recurrent respiratory papillomatosis) is a rare condition where warts appear in the throat. These growths can sometimes block the airway, causing a hoarse voice or troubled breathing. When this occurs in children it is called juvenile-onset RRP (JORRP).
Wart-causing HPV and cancer-causing HPV are not the same. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to foresee which patients who have contracted HPV will develop health problems or cancer.
How to detect signs and symptoms caused by HPV:
Pap smears are crucial for women, largely due to the fact that they pick up on early signs of cervical cancer. Most women don’t experience discomfort or any real symptoms of cervical cancer at all until it is in a late stage of development.
Since there have been links between HPV and cervical cancer, getting regular checkups and Pap smears can help alert a woman to possible health issues she may not even know she has.
Other HPV-related cancers might not have signs or symptoms until they are advanced and hard to treat. These include cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (back of throat including base of tongue and tonsils). For signs and symptoms of these cancers, see www.cancer.gov/
How do people get HPV?
HPV does not discriminate when it comes to who can infect or become infected. This is due to the fact that there is no single manner of obtaining it, when it comes to sexual activity.
Oral, anal and vaginal sex are all possible ways of contracting and passing along HPV, regardless of one’s sexual orientation. In fact, people who are completely asymptomatic and may not even know they have HPV can easily pass this to their partners unwittingly.
It is tricky to pinpoint exactly who may be responsible for passing along HPV if you are sexually active and have had more than one partner. The reason for this is that HPV can be passed along and then not manifest in any noticeable symptoms for, literally, years.
Also, since there are so many types of HPV, it is possible to get more than one type, making the narrowing down process that much more confusing.
JORRP is one of the more uncommon results of HPV being passed from a mother to her child during childbirth. The occurrence of a mother passing on HPV to a child during childbirth is rare, and the incidents of the child actually developing JORRP are rarer still.
One of the ways in which HPV affects the cells of the body is that it can turn otherwise normal, healthy cells into unhealthy, abnormal cells. While often these changes go unnoticed, there are times when the changes are quite noticeable.
In instances where HPV is fought off by the body’s natural process, the cells will go back to their healthy state. If the infection is not fought off, people can notice cell abnormalities in the form of genital warts and, in other cases, cancer.
Genital warts are quickly discovered, usually in a matter of weeks or months. On the other hand, cancer can affect a person years after contact with HPV, so that it may be difficult to make a link between the cancer and having contracted HPV.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Genital HPV Infection-Fact Sheet
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Retrieved from the internet on February 13, 2012
Dr. MaiyshaClairborne Urges Women to Take Steps Towards HPV Prevention
PR-USA.net. Retrieved from the internet on February 13, 2012
The Ultimate Controversy: Will HPV Go Away on Its Own?
Bonnie Diraimondo RN. Retrieved from the internet on February 13, 2012.
Aimee Boyle is a regular contributor to EmpowHER
Reviewed February 20, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith