How to Stay Vigilant Against HPV
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. There are more than 150 strains of the virus, with about 14 considered high-risk and more likely to cause cancer; two of those 14 are responsible for most HPV-related cancers.
HPV can cause warts around the genitals, anus and other body parts, but often goes without exhibiting any symptoms. If you are sexually active and trying to be safe and informed, what are your options for HPV testing and knowing when to get tested?
Warts on and around the genitals and anus are the most clear indicators pointing to an HPV infection. These warts can appear in both men and women, and take on various shapes and sizes, but the presence of any at all in intimate areas should warrant a trip to the doctor.
Warts on the hands and elbows are also symptoms of HPV, though not necessarily caused by sexual activity. In fact, plantar warts on the feet and flat warts, which occur anywhere on the body, could also point to HPV.
Unfortunately, the FDA has yet to approve an HPV test for men—though anal Pap smears are becoming more common for men who engage in anal sex—so if a man has sex with an HPV-positive woman, he should assume he can spread it to the next partner. Sex with a condom is an easy way to help slow the spread of this virus, though men and women can ask doctor's about a potential vaccine.
For women, the FDA recommends routine HPV tests every five years. Why so infrequent if HPV is so common and easily transmittable? The answer is reassuring: our bodies are more often than not able to clear an HPV infection within six months of contracting it. That's right, you may have had HPV (more than once!) and never known.
An HPV test includes a physical exam, where the cervix and genital area is examined for abnormalities. A tissue sample of the cervix is then taken to be examined for further abnormalities. If HPV is detected, a follow-up exam is scheduled six months later to see if the virus has been cleared. If the body has not cleared the virus on its own, your doctor will most likely perform a biopsy or colposcopy to further test the cells.
A colposcopy is a closer physical examination of the cervix, sometimes utilizing a vinegar substance to dye the tissue and aid in the physical examination portion of the procedure. A further tissue sample may be taken for another examination under a microscope to ensure the virus is or is not present. A biopsy, on the other hand, involves extracting and examining tissue. Both procedures indicate a closer look at the cervix and tissue is necessary in order to make sure the patient gets the care and attention necessary.
If the body has not cleared the virus after six months and is still present at a colposcopy or biopsy, then what's next? It's not as scary as it seems. Your doctor now knows you have HPV and can closely monitor it. You, too, can keep a close eye on things to keep your doctor informed on any changes or symptoms.
But if your cells have a high-grade cervical cell change, you require further procedure. The doctor will want to remove any potentially cancerous or cancerous cells, and will discuss next steps, which could be surgical or ablative (including a variety of treatment options like radiation or drugs).
HPV is frightening for a few reasons. However, by staying informed, knowing the symptoms, knowing when to get tested and what the proper steps are following a test, you can keep yourself and your partner(s) safe.
HPV is not a death sentence, and it's not an abstinence sentence either. HPV is a livable virus that must be monitored and treated when necessary.