Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
What exactly is the Human Papilloma Virus?
It is the most widespread sexually transmissible infection today and around the world.
75% of sexually active Canadian women will be infected by HPV at least once during their lifetime. The highest infection rates are found in teens and young adults under the age of 25.
More than 80 types of HPV have been identified so far.
Some types of HPV can cause condylomas also known as genital warts. What’s that, you ask? It is little bumps found in the genital area, the anus, or the throat. These warts sometimes look like a small version of the top of a rooster’s head, or like a cauliflower. Genital warts usually start appearing 3 months after contact with an infected person.
Other types of HPV infection can cause changes in the cells of the cervix, the opening to the uterus. After contact with an infected person, the changes can take months to develop. In a small number of young adult women, the changes can ultimately develop into cancer of the cervix.
HPV can infect the surface of the skin, the mouth, tongue, throat, tonsils, vagina, penis, cervix and anus.
This virus can be caught by having vaginal or anal penetration with someone infected with HPV, by skin to skin genital contact or by kissing the genitals of your partner. It is not transmitted by the blood.
How is it detected, treated and prevented?
Many youth remain unaware that they’re infected with HPV.
Condylomas or genital warts are usually detectable with the naked eye. They can cause itchiness or if located in the anus light bleeding. However, warts often do not cause any symptoms. They are detected, in men or women, by a complete examination of the genital area, skin, mouth and anus,
Early changes in the cells of the cervix do not cause any symptoms. A Pap test is required to detect these changes. The Pap test is done by examining cells under a microscope, cells taken from the cervix by a long Q-tip or little tool of that sort. The microscope makes it possible to see any abnormal changes to the cells of the cervix before any dangerous developments such as precancerous cells or cancer of the cervix.
For genital warts, many treatments are available : chemicals, ointments, laser treatment, cryotherapy (“freezing” with liquid Nitrogen).
Abnormal cells found on the cervix can be treated before causing any damage. Sometimes, only a repeated Pap test or other specialized tests are needed to follow the changes. In fact, abnormal cells can come back to normal without treatment.
The condom is not 100% effective against genital warts because HPV can be located outside of the area protected by the condom.
All sexually active women should have a Pap test, and you can ask your doctor when it is the time to do one and at what interval.
A vaccine against HPV (types that cause most warts and cell changes on the cervix of the uterus) is now available. Ask your doctor.
What are the possible complications?
Most treatments will remove the genital warts. But sometimes treatment can be lengthy and unpleasant. Warts can reappear. That’s why they are sometimes called « tough as nails »!
As mentioned, some types of HPV can also cause cancer of the cervix, and sometimes cancer of the vagina, anus, throat or penis. Cancer of the cervix is the third most frequent cancer among women 20 to 34 years old.
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