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What is HPV (Human Papillomavirus)?


What is HPV (Human Papillomavirus)?

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a viral infection that can sometimes cause skin or mucous membrane growths, aka, warts. However, there are more than 100 varieties of this virus, and some can cause other things besides warts, like cancer.

Most HPV infections don’t necessarily lead to cancer. Some types of genital HPV are linked to cervical cancer, and other types, like anus, penis, vagina, vulva, and oropharyngeal (throat).

What Are the Symptoms?

Some of the most common symptoms of HPV include:

  • Genital warts 
  • Common warts 
  • Plantar warts
  • Flat warts

HPV and Cervical Cancer Symptoms

HPV infections cause almost all cervical cancers. However, cervical cancer can take around 20 years or longer to emerge after an infection. In addition, HPV infection and early cervical cancer don’t usually cause noticeable symptoms.

Since early cervical cancer doesn’t have any symptoms, people need regular screening tests. That way, these tests can detect any precancerous changes in the cervix that could potentially cause cancer later in life. 

According to the most current guidelines, every three years women, femmes, transgender women, non-binary people, and other identities ages 21 to 29 should undergo a Pap test.

It is also recommended for people ages 30 to 65 to schedule and have a Pap test every three years. They can also go every five years if they get the HPV DNA test. Those over 65 can stop testing if they have received three normal Pap tests in a row or two HPV DNA and Pap tests that featured no abnormal results.

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Should I Get Tested for HPV?

Currently, there is an HPV test for the cervix; however, not for other genital areas. Because HPV is such a commonly occurring infection that usually goes away on its own, most people never know they have HPV.

If you do find out whether or not you have HPV, it can be due to the results of an HPV test or Pap test. 

An HPV test detects high-risk types of HPV on your cervix that can potentially lead to cancer. A Pap test, aka a Pap smear, finds abnormal cell changes on a person’s cervix. However, this test doesn’t look for cancer. 

Testing is essential because it can find early warning signs before turning them into potential issues. That way, you can get treatment right away and maintain your health. For the most part, cervical cancer is preventable if your doctor catches early red flags or warning signs. 

What Tests Do You Need?

Your medical practitioner will tell you which tests are necessary and how often you should get one. If you have a Pap test or HPV test that comes back positive, it doesn’t indicate cancer most of the time. Your doctor or nurse practitioner will discuss testing or treatment options that you may require. In addition, you’ll likely get tested more often. Then, your medical practitioner can better monitor your cervix to ensure you are healthy.

What Are the High-Risk and Low-Risk Types of HPV?

High-risk HPV strains include types 16 and 18. These two cause around 70% of cervical cancers. Other high-risk types include 31, 33, 45, 52, 58, and others. Low-risk HPV strains are 6 and 11, which attribute to approximately 90% of genital warts. However, these warts rarely turn into cancer and present as bumps.

How Do You Get HPV?

Anyone who has had sexual skin-to-skin contact will be at risk for a potential HPV infection. Here are some risk factors:

  • An increased number of sexual partners
  • Unprotected sex, like vaginal, oral, or anal
  • A weak immune system
  • Having sex with someone that has HPV

If you find out you have a high-risk type of HPV, this can be due to:

  • A weak immune system
  • Previously having other STIs
  • Chronic and frequent inflammation
  • Having a large number of children (can lead to cervical cancer) 
  • Using oral contraceptives for a long time (can lead to cervical cancer) 
  • Use of tobacco products (can lead to mouth or throat cancer)
  • Receiving anal sex from another person (can lead to anal cancer)

How Can You Prevent This Virus?

The best way to prevent HPV is to use condoms and practice safe sex.

In addition, the Gardasil 9 vaccine is an effective way to prevent genital warts and cancers caused by HPV. Gardasil can protect against nine types of HPV that are linked to cancer or genital warts.

The CDC encourages people of all genders to get the HPV vaccine around ages 11 or 12. Two doses will be given of the vaccine at least six months apart from each other. People ages 15 to 26 can get vaccinated on a three-dose schedule if they prefer.

In addition, anyone between 27 and 45 who hasn’t been vaccinated before for HPV can now do so. 

In essence, to prevent any health issues associated with HPV, get regular health checkups, screenings, and Pap smears. 

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