Women and HPV (Human Papilloma Virus): 5 Things To Know!

  • 6 mins read
  • Health Conditions
  • Women's Health
  • Dr. Pramod Mane
signs and symptoms of hpv in females

What is HPV and how prevalent is it among women?

HPV is one of the most commonly spread sexually transmitted infection in men and women. It is estimated that at least 70% men and women come in contact with the virus in their lifetime. Most cases do not cause any symptoms and our body’s immune system clears it off within 2 years of the infection naturally. However, in a fewer percentage, the virus remains inside the body and causes multiple diseases such as genital warts, and even cancers such as cervical cancer.

Currently, there are no treatment options as such for treating the HPV infection, but getting screened regularly can significantly decrease the risk of the virus from spreading further and causing any serious complications.

Like already mentioned, the HPV virus being a sexually transmitted virus, can spread through any type of sexual contact. One unique property of this virus is that it spreads through skin-to-skin contact and not through bodily fluids. So, those with multiple sexual partners are at a greater risk of getting infected with this virus.

HPV and Cervical Cancer

The most relevant thing to discuss here is the relation of the HPV virus and the risk of cervical cancer in women. There are certain HPV virus types which are resistant to our natural immunity and remain in the body, ultimately causing some unwanted changes in the cell of the women cervix leading to cancer. This cancer is detected early by getting screened using a pap smear test or an HPV test.

Despite being untreatable, the abnormal cells of the cervix can be removed via surgery, thereby reducing the risk of cervical cancer, if found early. It takes almost 10-20 years for the cancer to develop without any classical symptoms. Hence, it is considered very critical to get yourself tested regularly and get vaccinated for the HPV at a certain age in order to reduce the cancer risk.

5 things every woman should know about HPV

Here are 5 specific things about HPV that every woman should know.

Not all HPV types cause cancer

That’s actually a sigh of relief, right? There are over 200 HPV types and not every type is as harmful as the other. There are certain strains which manage to persist in the body and may cause genital warts and increase the chances of developing cervical cancer. A thing to note here is that the immune system in women over 30 years of age is less likely to resolve the HPV infection on its own.

You have the power to limit the risks

Reports have suggested that since the HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, using a condom can significantly reduce the risk of contracting the virus. However, since it spreads via skin-to-skin contact, it is not the only solution. Another way of preventing the HPV virus is abstinence. Limiting the number of sexual partners and knowing the history of your sexual partner can greatly reduce the risk of getting infected with HPV.

Cancers other than cervical

Although HPV infection is one of the leading causes of cervical cancer (99%), there are other types of cancer too which can develop after the infection. Some examples are cancers of anus, vagina, penis, vulva, throat, larynx, mouth etc. Well, yes, this is why HPV should not be taken lightly even by men, as it can cause cancer and genital warts in both the sexes. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), does not approve any specific HPV screening test for men. However, it is advised to seek medical help if your partner is diagnosed with the HPV, or if you notice any change in their health.

Is cervical cancer preventable?

Cervical cancer is one of the most common types of cancer found in women. However, it is also the most preventable and treatable type, if detected early. Most of the cases as noted above are caused by HPV; hence, an early detection can help your doctor monitor any abnormal change in the cervix cells. Regular pap and HPV tests are key to monitor those changes and prepare an appropriate strategy to treat it such as by removing the abnormal cells before they become cancerous.

Read more about screening tests in “Reducing cervical cancer, its screening and what should we know about it?”

Get vaccinated

The vaccine for HPV is generally recommended for ages 11-12 years (preteens), but can also be started at age 9. If not vaccinated already, it is also available for everyone through age 26. For someone in the age range of 27-45, one can get the vaccine by consulting the doctor and discussing some other risk factors related to HPV infection and the possible benefits of vaccination. This is because with increasing age, the strength of our immunity lessens. Hence, those above 15 usually have to take 3 full doses instead of just one or two.

Decoding the pros and cons of the HPV vaccine

We’ve just discussed some specifics of HPV infection and its risk factor being the highest for women to develop cervical cancer. Now, let’s discuss further about the HPV vaccine and its pros and cons.

The HPV shots are currently given in 2 or 3 muscle injections over a total period of 6 months according to age.

Pros of the HPV vaccine

  • First things first, the HPV vaccine is safe and effective to protect children and adults from HPV-related diseases.
  • Effective against the HPV types 16 and 18 (all 3 vaccines) which are considered as high-risk infections and can further lead to cervical, vulvar, or anal cancer.
  • Effective against HPV types 6 and 11 (only one type of vaccine) which are known to cause genital warts.
  • Early reports show effectiveness against throat cancer which is considered as an upcoming risk factor in women with HPV infection.

Cons of the HPV vaccine

  • Only selective protection and not against all HPV types.
  • Getting 2-3 shots in a 6-month period can be a difficult routine to remember and follow.
  • No protection against other sexually transmitted infections or HPV related infections.
  • May have a negative effect on fertility making it slightly difficult to conceive. babies.

Read more on the Warning Signs of Cervical cancer You Should Not Ignore

Summary

It can therefore be said that awareness about HPV and the associated risk factors can go a long way in preventing the very deadly cervical cancer. All you need is to get that screening booked, and get your vaccine while you still can. After all, a cervical cancer screening test takes no more than 10 minutes!

References

Petry, K. U. (2014). HPV and cervical cancer. Scandinavian Journal of Clinical and Laboratory Investigation, 74(sup244), 59-62.

Cohen, P. A., Jhingran, A., Oaknin, A., & Denny, L. (2019). Cervical cancer. The Lancet, 393(10167), 169-182.

Perkins, R. B., Guido, R. S., Castle, P. E., Chelmow, D., Einstein, M. H., Garcia, F., … & Schiffman, M. (2020). 2019 ASCCP risk-based management consensus guidelines for abnormal cervical cancer screening tests and cancer precursors. Journal of lower genital tract disease, 24(2), 102

Harper, D. M., & DeMars, L. R. (2017). HPV vaccines–a review of the first decade. Gynecologic oncology, 146(1), 196-204.

Crow, J. M. (2012). HPV: The global burden. Nature, 488(7413), S2-S3.

Skorstengaard, M., Suhr, J., & Lynge, E. (2019). Condom use to enhance regression of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials, 20(1), 1-7.

Jin, J. (2018). HPV infection and cancer. Jama, 319(10), 1058-1058.

Hamed, S. M., Ebrahim, S. A., & Ibrahim, H. M. THE EFFICACY OF CERVARIX VACCINE IN WART TREATMENT: UPDATED MANAGEMENT. Turkish Journal of Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation, 32, 3

Balasundaram, P., & Sakr, M. (2021). Understanding and Application of CDC Immunization Guidelines. StatPearls [Internet].