Today, many diseases and infections could be transmitted through sexual intercourse. Dubbed as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), these have increased over the past years. The sudden increase of the cases of STDs across the globe indicates that many individuals are still unaware of practicing safe sex.
One of the most common sexually transmitted infections is the human papillomavirus infection (HPV). In fact, it is the most common sexually transmitted infection with most sexually active people, both men, and women, being exposed to the virus in their lifetime.
HPV infection commonly leads to the skin or mucous membrane growths called warts. Some types of HPV infection may eventually lead to cervical cancers in women.
Today, there are about at least 100 varieties of human papillomavirus that exist.
The growth of HPV infection warts may be seen on various parts of the body.
For instance, HPV infection that affects the soles of the feet is called plantar wart and if it affects the genitals, it’s called genital warts. Other strains of the virus can cause in the different parts of the body like the face and neck, but these types aren’t sexually transmitted.
In the United States alone, about 340,000 to 360,000 women and men were affected by genital warts each year. Moreover, approximately one in 100 sexually active adults in the country have genital warts at any given time.
Fortunately, this is a preventable disease as HPV vaccination is already available worldwide.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), warts linked with most HPV infections can go away on their own even without any symptoms or treatment. However, the virus is still present in the body of an infected person. As a result, the person may have the virus and pass it unknowingly to their sexual partners.
However, the virus does not go away on its own and eventually, it can cause health problems including:
- Genital warts
- Warts in the throat called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis
Common warts found in the body include:
Genital warts – These warts appear as flat with small cauliflower-like lesions or bumps on the skin. They also have stem-like protrusions and are usually found on the vulva, anus, cervix or inside the vagina. In men, they are found on the penis, anus or scrotum.
Plantar warts – Plantar warts usually appear on the soles, heels or balls of the feet. These are hard and grainy growths. They may cause pain and discomfort, particularly if they have become bigger and deeper.
Flat warts – Flat warts are flat but slightly raised lesions. They appear darker than the skin and may appear on the legs in women, face in children and beard area in men.
Common warts – Common warts appeared to be rough and raised that appear on the fingers, hands, and elbows.
HPV infection happens when the virus enters the body. This usually happens when the there virus enters a cut, a small tear in the skin and abrasion. Skin-to-skin contact primarily transmits it.
However, genital HPV can be transmitted through direct sexual contact and even oral sex. However, it also can be transferred through skin-to-skin contact and that means that intercourse is not required to get the infection. In rare cases, the mother can transmit the virus to the baby during childbirth.
Anyone who’s had sexual skin-to-skin contact is at risk for HPV infection. It is impossible to determine who is at risk or will develop health problems from the infection.
However, people with weakened immune systems may be more at risk.
Despite the fact that HPV infections are quite common, some factors might increase the risk of acquiring the disease:
Age – Common warts are usually seen in children while genital warts are found in sexually active people like adolescents and young adults.
Sexual partners – The number of sexual partners may increase the risk of contracting the infection. The more sexual partners a person has, the higher the risk of having genital HPV infection. Also, when the partner also has many sexual partners, it also increases the risk.
Damaged skin – People with damaged skin are more prone to developing common warts.
Compromised immune system – People who have weak immune systems due to HIV or AIDS, organ transplant, chemotherapy and long-term steroid use are more prone to developing HPV infections.
Personal contact – Touching the warts of others with bare hands and not using any protection before touching surfaces exposed to HPV like swimming pools and public toilets or showers are more prone to developing the infection.
If the disease is left untreated, some forms of warts may lead to serious complications.
For instance, genital warts may cause abnormal urine flow in males, particularly if it’s present in the urethra. In women, it may cause bleeding in the urethra, vagina or anus.
The other complications include:
Oral and upper respiratory lesions – Some HPV infections may lead to the formation of lesions on the tongue, soft palate, tonsils and in the larynx.
Cancer – Some strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer. According to the CDC, nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the HPV. However, it can also cause other types of cancers like vaginal cancer, vulvar cancer, penile cancer, cancer of the back of the throat and anal cancer.
Usually, the doctor might be able to diagnose HPV infection by looking at warts alone.
If the genital warts are not visible, there is a need for the following tests:
Paps smear test – The doctor will insert a swab into the vagina and cervix. Pap tests can show abnormalities in the cervical mucus or secretions to detect cervical cancer.
Vinegar solution test – Also called acetic test, this is done through the application of a vinegar solution to HPV-infected genital areas. The areas will turn white, making them more visible.
DNA test – This is usually done on the cells in the cervical area to detect the presence of DNA of HPV varieties.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first DNA test for HPV in 2014. This is usually done when the woman reaches 30 years of age. Updated guidelines suggest that women have their first pap smear at age 21 and every three years after that.
Women who are 30 to 65 years old should be screened every five years with both HPV and Pap tests. If the patient has one of the 15 known HPV strains that could lead to cancer, the doctor would recommend monitoring for cervical changes, which means getting the pap smear more frequently.
Most cases of HPV go away on their own so there is not a treatment for the infection itself. In some people, the wart may go away on its own without treatment. However, even though warts will disappear, they can reappear in the same location or a different part of the body.
Some medicines may help eradicate warts when they are applied directly to the lesion. However, it may take several applications before the lesion disappears. Some of the medicines used are:
Podofilox (Condylox) – This is a drug that is applied topically to the lesion or wart. It works by damaging the wart tissue, particularly in the genitals. Some people who use this drug may feel itching and pain upon application.
Salicylic acid – Some treatments can remove the layers of the wart slowly. However, this can irritate the skin so better read the instructions properly.
Imiquimod (Aldara, Zyclara) – This is a cream prescribed by a doctor that can enhance the immune system’s ability to battle HPV. There are side effects such as swelling and redness on the site.
Trichloroacetic acid – This is a chemical treatment that burns off warts on the soles, genitals, and palms. However, skin irritation is common.
In some cases, medications would not work. Doctors will suggest surgical interventions such as:
Electrocautery – This is a method that uses electric currents to burn warts.
Cryotherapy – As the name suggests, this treatment option freezes the abnormal skin areas with liquid nitrogen.
Interferon injection – This treatment is not often used due to the increased risk of side effects and it is expensive.
Laser therapy – This treatment uses a light beam to remove the abnormal parts of the skin.
Surgery – This method is done by manually removing the wart or lesion through surgery. This is just a minor operation and can be done as an out-patient.
Despite the fact that HPV infection is common, there are many ways to prevent contracting the virus. For genital warts, the best ways to prevent them is through abstinence, practicing monogamous sexual relationships and abstaining having sex with someone who has visible genital warts.
One of the most effective ways is to have HPV vaccination. At present, there are three available vaccines in the market – Cervarix, Gardasil and Gardasil 9. Talk with your doctor to determine which vaccine is recommended for you.
Also, keeping the immune system healthy is vital. This can be done by eating healthy foods like fruits and vegetables and getting adequate sleep.