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What you need to know about HPV

HPV can be dangerous - make sure you know where you stand

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If you’re sexually active, the likelihood is that you’ve swiped right on someone with human papillomavirus. According to the Centres for Disease Control, some 79 million Americans have some form of HPV. But what is it? Why should you care? And how should you avoid it?

Let’s tackle these questions one after another.

What is HPV?

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cancer. You can receive it from skin-to-skin contact with penises, vaginas and anuses. Sex (including oral sex), sharing sex toys and manual stimulation can all result in infection. That’s scary, yes, but it gets worse.

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Why should you care?

Almost every case of cervical cancer is associated with HPV. And then there’s genital warts. In fact, genital warts are one of the key symptoms of HPV. However, some people are asymptomatic. There are four types of genital warts to look out for
 

  • Condylomata  acuminata (kon-die-low-mata ack-yew-min-ata), which resemble tiny pieces of cauliflower
  • Papular warts, which look like acne
  • Keratotic warts, or  “granny warts”;  the brown or black splotches you sometimes see on elderly people.
  • Flat-topped papules, which have a different colour to the skin around them and are slightly raised.

These warts themselves are not harmful, but can easily transmit HPV. If you find these on your thighs, genitals or buttocks, it’s a good idea to see a doctor as soon as possible. 

There are a variety of other conditions strongly associated with HPV. Depending on the type, you could develop non-genital warts, benign tumors in the mouth and larynx, cancer of the throat, genital cancers other than cervical cancer, anal lesions, mouth papules, or even treeman syndrome. 5% of all cancers are related to HPV, including about 40% of cancers of the penis and 90% of anal cancers.

There are vaccines for the types responsible for warts (6 and 11), as well as those for the types responsible for cancer (16 and 18). The four-in-one or “quadrivalent” vaccine fights all of them at once and wins: it’s extremely safe and highly effective, stopping every moderate to severe precancerous cervical lesions. Regardless of your gender, it’s important not to let your body transmit  illness, as both men and women can carry HPV — It’s a good idea to get vaccinated immediately. However, if you’ve already got HPV type 16 or 18, the vaccine won’t help.  It is very important to note, that unlike chicken pox, prior exposure to HPV does not grant immunity to it. As for those worrying warts, well, they can be frozen off, but they do sometimes come back. The lesions can be removed without too much trouble as well.

Practicing safe sex in combination with being vaccinated is a good way to avoid HPV. If you do want to have unprotected sex, you could check that your partner is vaccinated or does not have any symptoms of HPV. 

It is important to get regular pap smears if you’re a woman over the age of 25. This means that it’s more likely that any HPV infection will be picked up and you can get treatment to prevent it from progressing much further. 

Sources

Diagnostic Pathology: Infectious Diseases by Danny A Milner

Human papillomavirus and HPV vaccines: a review

Human papillomavirus molecular biology and disease association

 

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