HPV testing, symptoms, and treatment

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common virus in humans and is responsible for the development of warts. There are over 100 types of HPV, most of which are harmless. In fact, most people will contract some form of HPV in their lifetime and not even know it because they will experience no symptoms and the virus will clear up on its own.

Some forms of HPV, however, can lead to pre-cancerous growths and even cancer (particularly cervical, anal, and genital cancers). These forms are usually the sexually transmitted types of HPV, of which there are more than 40.

What is HPV?

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a viral infection of the skin and mucus membranes that results in warts. Although not all forms of HPV are transmitted sexually, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the world and is the cause of genital warts.

What are HPV symptoms?

Most people infected with HPV show no signs or symptoms whatsoever, and in the majority of cases, the infection clears on its own.

If the infection does not clear on its own, it leads to warts in the anal and genital areas, and less commonly, in the throat or under the tongue. In extreme cases, with certain high-risk types of HPV (usually types 16 and 18), symptoms include cervical, anal, or genital cancer.

How can HPV testing help?

Because HPV can have such devastating consequences but rarely presents any early warning signs, screening and prevention are essential.

Women should have regular PAP tests once they become sexually active. This should detect abnormalities caused by high-risk types of HPV. If a PAP smear does reveal abnormalities, the sample can then be sent for an HPV test.

HPV testing is not yet routine for women unless a PAP yields abnormal or inconclusive results. However, some experts recommend that women over 30 obtain an HPV test in addition to their PAP smear, regardless of the results.

What about the HPV vaccine?

For young women, the HPV vaccine can offer protection against several types of sexually transmitted HPV. The vaccine is most effective if received before a woman becomes sexually active, so it is currently recommended only for girls and women aged 11 to 26. Once a woman is sexually active, the likelihood that she's been exposed to HPV is high, and the vaccine can protect her only against strains she has not been exposed to.

Is there any HPV treatment?

As with other viruses, such as herpes or HIV, there is no cure for human papillomavirus (HPV). In most cases, the virus will simply clear on its own, usually within a couple of years, without ever having produced any symptoms.

If symptoms do occur, they must be treated separately. Genital warts can be removed by a doctor through a variety of methods, and pre-cancerous lesions can also usually be removed. Cervical, anal, and genital cancers must be treated according to the stage and severity of the cancer.