What is HPV?
HPV stands for Human Papilloma Viruses. More than one hundred types of HPV have been recorded and they affect both men and women. HPV mainly infect the epithelium (cells with a protective role) of the skin and the mucus membranes of the genitals, the anus and the pharynx.
There are low-risk or high-risk HPV types. The former cause benign infections (acuminate warts) whereas the latter can lead to cervical cancer, as well as penile cancer, anal cancer and vulvar cancer. HPV infections are unfortunately very common nowadays.
It is estimated that more than 2/3 of sexually active population have been infected with one of the HPV types at some point in their life, while risk of infection for women reaches 80%.
HPV infections are usually asymptomatic. Most lesions are not visible to the naked eye and can only be seen with a colposcope. Visible symptoms of the viruses are called acuminated warts and are small raised growths usually found in the pubic area, the vulva and other areas.
HPV and cancer
Precancerous lesions of the cervix are detected by a Pap test or if an HPV test is found positive. They can be removed since they need 10 to 30 years to progress to cancer. Fortunately, even though HPV infections are quite common, cancers are rare.
Most times our immune system, the organism’s natural resistance to diseases, clears the virus, which however, remains latent throughout our life. Only persistent infection with certain high-risk HPV types may progress to cancer.
The data is encouraging: 90% of women with high-risk HPV infection clear the virus naturally within 2 or 3 years.
HPV and prevention
As already mentioned, most sexually active men and women will probably get infected with an HPV type at some point. Ways to reduce risk of infection are:
- Sexual abstinence
- Sexual intercourse with a steady partner
Condom use as a means of protection from HPV is debatable because they provide protection only for the area that is covered.