An estimated 75 percent of Americans will be infected at some point with human papillomavirus (HPV), a group of more than 100 viral strains, many best known for causing warts. While the vast majority of infections are harmless, the high-risk strains account for nearly all cases of cervical cancer, HPV’s most serious complication.
Many strains of genital HPV produce no symptoms, but can still be spread between partners. In some cases the virus may develop into genital warts, which may or may not be visible to the naked eye.
If left untreated, high-risk strains may lead to cervical cancer. Symptoms are rare but may include vaginal bleeding between periods or during intercourse, or a discharge that doesn’t itch or burn.
A Pap smear is a routine screening for cervical cancer in which cells are scraped from the cervix and tested for abnormalities.
The Hybrid Capture HPV Test can detect all 13 key cancer-causing strains. It may be recommended for women over 30 (cervical cancer is less common in younger women) in combination with a Pap smear.
Colposcopy involves a diagnostic tool that examines the cervix using a brightly lit electric microscope. Tissue samples from abnormal areas are biopsied for further analysis. It is usually performed after an abnormal Pap smear or positive HPV test.
There is no cure for HPV. If detected, your doctor may advise a period of observation, since some strains often clear up on their own.
In other cases, your doctor may suggest removing abnormal cells before they progress into cervical cancer. This can be done with the use of cone biopsy, cryosurgery (freezing tissue), laser surgery or LEEP (removing tissue with a thin electrical wire). It’s not known if the virus disappears or simply becomes dormant once cells are removed. Regular screening is important because HPV may reappear.
Troublesome warts may be destroyed using chemicals applied directly to the skin, cryotherapy, electrocautery or surgery.
It’s difficult to prevent HPV, since many people are unaware that they carry the virus and condoms do not protect against infection. To prevent spreading warts associated with genital HPV: Avoid direct contact with the affected skin. Abstain from sex until warts are treated.
To prevent cervical cancer associated with HPV get regular Pap smears, which may indicate HPV infection or the presence of precancerous cells.
Researchers are currently testing a vaccine against HPV-16, the strain found in half of all cervical cancers. In a recent experiment, it prevented virtually all immunized women from becoming infected with the virus.
“Although most women who are infected with HPV will not develop cervical cancer, it’s important to get regular Pap smears to screen for precancerous cells.”