HPV:  What Is It, And How Can I Get It?

The Human Papillomavirus- different from the one that causes either HIV or herpes- does have a vaccine that can be given as a preventative. There are several types of this virus: low-risk and high-risk. Low-risk strains normally contribute to forming warts in the sexual areas- these can be a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

High-risk virus strains have been shown to contribute to cancers. Cervix, prostate, skin, throat, and other cancers have been traced to this virus. Nearly everyone that is sexually active will be exposed to this virus sometime in their life. Many times it will never show a symptom, nor give you any health problems.

What Are The Symptoms?

HPV spreads even when no symptoms are present. They are mild and may show up well after your initial infection- from a few months to many years. Some of the symptoms may include:

  • pain in the genitals or anus
  • unusual bleeding
  • burning and itching around the genitals

If you have one of the low-risk strains, you may have visible warts during an active phase. However, you can still spread the virus even when the warts are not visible. The high-risk strains will not show warts, and may not be caught until cancer has started to develop.

Diagnosis And Treatments

The vaccine is normally given as a preventative to people before the age of 21- the newest recommendations are between 11 and 12. This will prevent both the high and low-risk viruses from taking hold in your body.

The normal way to tell if you have HPV is to look for the presence of warts.  On request, or if a woman has an abnormal pap smear, an HPV test will check for the high-risk type of virus. There is no standard test for the virus yet, and currently, men are not tested at all for the high-risk virus.

Since the warts are the most common symptom, you do have a choice. You can wait and see if they disappear on their own, or you can talk to your professional about other options, including freezing, lasers, or medication to put on warts. The doctor may want to take a sample of the wart to make sure that there is not another cause before discussing any removal options.

Once removed, the virus is not gone from your system. You can continue to infect your partner with HPV even without symptoms.

Mothers can normally not pass the virus to their child. However, a mother with HPV can develop cervical changes while pregnant, and should continue to be tested by pap smears even while pregnant to ensure the mother's health.

Some physicians are suggesting that women, and especially men who may have been exposed to a high-risk virus be checked for cancers, especially in areas where skin-to-skin sex has happened as a preventative. Since men are not routinely checked for the high-risk virus, this may catch the virus that is not showing symptoms before it does damage.