Understanding human papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, are among the most common sexually transmitted viruses that affect the skin and moist membranes lining the body, such as the cervix, anus, throat and mouth. There are more than 100 different types of HPV, 40 of which commonly affect the genital areas of both males and females. If unaddressed, HPV can cause serious health problems including genital warts and certain cancers.

What causes HPV?

There is no certain cause of HPV or ways to tell if you will develop health complications from HPV. In most cases, the viruses go away by themselves before causing any health complication. Most people don’t even notice when they have become infected by HPV.

Contrary to what you might think, human papillomavirus is not the same as HIV or herpes. This is despite the fact that both viruses can be passed during sexual intercourse. HPV has symptoms different from those of HIV and also causes different health problems.

Symptoms of HPV

The majority of people who are infected by HPV never develop any symptoms or health problems. In fact, 90% of HPV infections go away by themselves within the first two years of infection. However, for some people, HPV infection persists and causes severe health problems, such as warts on the genital areas, recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP) and cancers like cervical cancer.

Other less common, but equally serious cancers that can be caused by HPV include cancer of the penis and anus. Oropharygeal cancer, a type of cancer that affects the back of the throat and base of tonsils and tongue, can also be caused by HPV. It is, therefore, important to take proactive measures to prevent and treat HPV early.

HPV prevention and treatment

Human papillomavirus vaccines are normally used to prevent diseases and cancers caused by the virus. In addition to vaccination, routine screening for people aged between 21 and 65 years is highly recommended, especially for women. Children of ages 11 or 12 should also be taken for vaccination against HPV.

Because there is no cure for the virus itself, treatment of HVP is based on prevention of infection through the use of vaccination and advising on the use of a condom. That said, there are effective methods of treating some of the diseases caused by HPV. For example, genital warts are effectively treated chemically or through cauterisation procedures.

If you would like to learn more about HPV, visit National Health Service website at nhs.uk/chq/pages/2611.aspx

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