HPV - The Hidden Epidemic

Regular Pap tests are the best way to detect pre-cancerous changes in the cervix caused by HPV

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by KB Lim, OB/GYN

Can you name the sexually transmitted disease that will affect at least one in two sexually active men and women?

It is genital human papillomavirus (HPV), a group of sexually transmitted viruses that includes more than 30 different types. A fast-growing health concern, genital HPV currently affects an estimated 20 million people in the United States — yet many people have no noticeable symptoms.

In many cases, HPV clears up on its own with no lasting effects. In others, however, it can lead to problems such as genital warts or mildly abnormal Pap smear tests. “High-risk” types of HPV can cause cancer of the cervix or genitals.

HPV symptoms and treatment

Because most people with HPV have no symptoms, they are not even aware they have the disease. Some may develop genital warts, which are soft, moist swellings in the genital area, or pre-cancerous changes in the cervix.

There is no HPV test available for men, but many women first learn they have it through their Pap test results, which detect abnormal changes in the cervix.

While most types of HPV can cause mild cervical changes, the virus resolves on its own in 90 percent of women within two years. However, about 10 high-risk strains of the virus may lead to cervical cancer.

In these cases, women should work closely with their physicians to determine how best to monitor and treat the condition to help prevent pre-cancerous changes caused by HPV from developing into a full-blown case of cancer.

Treatments usually focus on the changes in the skin and membranes caused by the virus. Regular Pap tests are the best way to detect pre-cancerous changes in the cervix caused by HPV.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, most women who develop serious cases of cervical cancer have not had regular Pap tests. Ask your physician how often you need to be tested. If you have had an abnormal result in the past, your doctor may want you to be tested more frequently.

Precautions to reduce risk for HPV

Genital HPV is spread through genital contact. Even though most people with the virus do not know they have it, they can spread it to their sexual partners.

Although having a mutually monogamous long-term partner can greatly reduce the likelihood of contracting HPV, it can be difficult to determine whether your partner has contracted the disease from someone in his or her past.

If you are single and dating, you have an 85 percent chance of contracting HPV. It is not known if condoms help prevent the spread of HPV; however, we do know that the use of condoms has been associated with a decreased rate of cervical cancer. The only way to fully prevent HPV is to avoid all sexual contact.

This Scripps Health and Wellness tip was provided by KB Lim, M.D., OB/GYN, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.