Education, vaccination, prevention

The Human Papilloma Virus Explained

With all the information flying around HPV, it is perfectly natural to feel confused. The Human Papilloma Virus is part of the larger papillomavirus family. HPV is a virus that itself has strands that affect their host differently based on many contextual factors. The many strands of HPV are now counted in the hundreds!

For the benefit of this article, the Human Papilloma Virus can be divided in two categories: the types more often associated with condylomas, or genital warts, and the types mainly associated with cervical cancer.

Did you know …?

  • HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world
  • Most people coming in contact with a strand of HPV will have their immune system eliminate the virus within two years without any visible symptoms or consequences
  • Cutaneous warts are caused by a similar virus in the papilloma family
  • It is estimated that the majority of sexually active people will have at least one HPV infection in the course of their lives, especially in the first few years of active sexual life

Transmission

HPV is transmitted through skin to skin contact, usually during intercourse when direct contact occurs with infected secretions, whether or not there is penetration. While transmission is more likely to occur when there is a contact with a visible lesion, it is still possible to transmit HPV in the absence of visible symptoms. The use of condoms is always recommended, but does not guarantee a 100% protection against HPV.

Incubation period averages between two weeks to eight months, although much longer time windows have been reported. Most patients will notice symptoms between two to three months from exposure.

Diagnosis

Genital Warts

Condylomas, or genital warts, are mostly caused by types 6 and 11 of HPV. Together, these two types are responsible for over 90% of reported genital wart cases, but are rarely associated to cancer risks.

If you notice a new lesion, it is important to consult with a healthcare professional to confirm a diagnosis. Condylomas can easily be mistaken for a skin tag, an ingrown hair or an array of other different dermatological affections. The appearance and location of the condyloma may vary from one patient to another, but lesions are most frequently found in the region of the penis, scrotum, vulva, perineum and anus.

For 50% of affected patients, genital warts will disappear on their own within four months. If treatment is needed, your doctor will be able to offer cryotherapy treatments applying a cold gas directly on the lesions. Recurrences are possible however, and treating a visible wart does not equate to the eradication of the virus from the system.

HPV and cancer

For many people, HPV brings to mind cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the most severe consequence of HPV infection in women. The vast majority of cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV, hence the crucial importance of regular examinations and PAP tests.

Vaginal cytology (PAP test) or HPV screening for high risk HPV strains are not a genital wart screening. Even if your PAP test is normal, you may still experience, transmit or contract genital warts.

It is important to note that there is no existing screening test to detect asymptomatic HPV infections; routine STI screenings do not test for HPV specifically.

Although less common, HPV infections can cause cancer affecting the anus, penis, vagina, mouth and throat. HPV is in fact the main cause of throat cancer in the younger population.

Did you consider immunization?

In Quebec, vaccination against HPV is part of the immunization schedule for children in the fourth year of primary school. Even if the vaccine offers optimal protection when administered before the start of sexual activity, it still is a pertinent option to explore at any age.

The HPV vaccination is recommended for any sexually active person who is not in a long term, committed and monogamous relationship. Créa-MeD uses a type of vaccine covering the types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58, thus protecting against 90% of high risk strains and 90% of genital wart causing strains.

It is to be noted however that vaccination never offers total and guaranteed immunity, nor can it treat an existing HPV infection. Think of vaccination as a helpful tool to help your immune system fight off potential HPV infections!

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