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How does HPV infection affect our lives?

According to MDHHS reports, approximately 17,500 women and 9,300 men are affected by cancer caused by HPV infection each year. HPV is a major factor in almost all cases of cervical cancer-related deaths in women. So, how does HPV actually affect us? How can we roughly determine if we've been targeted by HPV? And what should we do about it?

HPV, also known as human papillomavirus, is a viral infection that can result in the growth of skin or mucous membrane growths, commonly referred to as warts. HPV is not a single virus; there are over a hundred types of this virus. Some HPV infections lead to the development of mucous membrane growths, while others can cause various types of cancers, although this occurs in only a minority of cases. The types of cancers that HPV may contribute to include anal cancer, vaginal cancer, vulvar cancer, and more (Mayo Clinic).


Currently, high-risk HPV strains have been identified as the pathogens responsible for causing abnormalities in cervical development and cervical cancer. Low-risk HPV strains may lead to genital warts in the anal region. While low-risk HPV strains may not pose a significant threat, they can still result in patient morbidity and societal psychological distress. The primary impacts of HPV on individuals include the growth of wart-like formations in the genital organ area, an increased risk of cancer, cell abnormalities near the cervix, weakened immune system, transmission to sexual partners, and the potential transmission from an HPV-infected pregnant woman to her newborn.

The HPV (Human Papillomavirus) virus is primarily transmitted through direct skin contact, such as sexuality. However, other forms of sexual contact can also lead to HPV transmission, for instance, using someone else's towels. Early or risky sexuality is a major factor in HPV virus infection. Newborns can also be infected with the HPV virus, especially if the mother is infected and transmission occurs during childbirth. If an individual contracts the HPV virus during pregnancy, the baby is at risk of infection (Mayo Clinic).


For doctors, the diagnosis of HPV infection is typically confirmed through visual examination. If genital warts are present in noticeable locations, it is relatively easy to confirm HPV virus infection. In cases where the warts are not visible, testing methods such as acetic acid solution tests, Pap smears, or DNA tests are employed to determine HPV infection. Doctors collect cell samples from the vagina for laboratory analysis to identify any abnormalities that may lead to cancer (Mayo Clinic).


If infected with the virus and having a significant number of warts, no special treatment is needed as they will disappear on their own, especially in pediatric patients. However, there is currently no cure for the virus. Nevertheless, there are medications available for wart removal. For example, over-the-counter drugs containing salicylic acid can gradually eliminate warts. It is not suitable for facial use due to the potential skin irritation caused by salicylic acid, making it more practical for warts on the neck or other areas. Podophyllin is another topical prescription drug that can destroy wart tissue, but its use may result in a burning sensation. Discomfort may be experienced when using these medications, so it is advisable to avoid facial contact. Consistent use of these medications is most beneficial for wart elimination. (Mayo Clinic)


If abnormalities occur in the cervix or there are precancerous symptoms after HPV infection, prompt medical intervention is necessary for surgical removal. Surgical procedures include cervical conization, cryotherapy, laser therapy, and other surgical methods (Mayo Clinic). Post-surgery lifestyle management is crucial, requiring patients to avoid strenuous physical labor, maintain a light diet, and ensure cleanliness of the external genitalia to prevent secondary infections.


With advances in medical technology, there are various ways to prevent HPV infection, with HPV vaccines being a notable option. There are nine-valent, quadrivalent, and bivalent HPV vaccines, each targeting specific HPV types. The vaccines can reduce the risk of cancer, decrease wart growth, and prevent lesions. Individuals under 45 years old are recommended to receive the HPV vaccine. For children, vaccination around the age of 11 or 12, before their first sexual encounter, provides more effective protection. While HPV vaccines cannot prevent all infections, they significantly lower the risk of cancer, wart growth, and lesions.

There are additional preventive measures to reduce infection rates, including minimizing sexual activity, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, practicing good hygiene to avoid sharing personal items like towels, and effectively lowering the risk of HPV infection.

You probably may think HPV is not distant, however, awareness, prevention, and timely vaccination contribute to a healthier life.


Reference

“HPV Infection.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research,

Accessed 14 Jan. 2024. 


Mayo Clinic. “HPV Infection - Diagnosis and Treatment - Mayo Clinic.” Mayoclinic.org, 2018,www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hpv-infection/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20351602.


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