July 01, 2019
Most illnesses have noticeable symptoms, providing the red flags we need to seek medical attention. But some illnesses come with no symptoms at all, going unnoticed until further complications have manifested. Human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, is an especially common example of this. With 79 million Americans currently infected with HPV, understanding this illness is vital to ensuring prevention and recovery. But, what exactly is HPV? Here’s everything you need to know about the infection that hides in plain sight.
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, encompassing over 100 viruses. Of those 100 strains, over 30 have been linked to the development of cancer. It’s currently the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, appearing so frequently that some researchers believe almost all sexually active people will contract the virus at some point in their lives. Though most people will recover fully from the infection naturally without even knowing it was there, other strains— about 13 of the 100 — are more high risk. This makes them much more likely to cause cervical, vaginal, or anal cancer. People of any gender can contract HPV, but women under 26, people with compromised immune systems, and men with same-sex partners are considered especially high risk.
While HPV doesn’t usually present symptoms, certain strains are known to cause genital warts. These may appear as just a single, small bump, or a cluster of bumps on the genitalia of any gender. The appearance of these warts depends on the individual, but ranges from large, small, flat, white, or flesh tone. Other warts are also associated with HPV, including plantar warts that commonly appear on the feet, and flat warts that generally affect the face and neck of children and young adults.
While not a symptom of HPV itself, keeping an eye out for symptoms of cancer frequently caused by HPV can be lifesaving. Because HPV is responsible for nearly all cases of cervical cancer, women should be especially aware of any changes to their menstrual cycle, any abnormal bleeding, pain during intercourse, bleeding after intercourse, or unexplained persistent pelvic pain.
Because there is no cure for the HPV virus, prevention is vital to minimizing the prevalence of HPV and its consequences. The only fail-safe way to prevent HPV is by abstaining from all sexual contact, but this isn’t the reality for most adults. Because the majority of individuals are or will become sexually active at some point in their lives, getting the HPV vaccine helps protect against the virus. Known by the brand name Gardasil, the HPV vaccine is typically recommended by a doctor at age 11 or 12, ideally protecting children before they’re exposed to sexually transmitted diseases. The vaccine, given in a series of two to three shots, rarely presents side effects more serious than pain or redness at the injection site. Condoms are also recommended in the prevention of HPV, though they are more effective at preventing other STDs like chlamydia and HIV.
Although most forms of HPV are harmless and go away on their own, the risk of contracting cancer-causing HPV isn’t worth it. Anyone who is sexually active should educate themselves and their partners about the dangers of unsafe sex, and should always see a doctor regularly to undergo STD testing and cancer screenings.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information on this web site is for general information purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or health care provider on any matters relating to your health.