Human papilloma virus, commonly known as HPV, is a group of viruses that includes more than 100 different strains or types. More than 30 of these viruses are sexually transmitted, and they can infect the genital area of both men and women.
Most women who have a genital HPV infection are not aware that they have been infected. The virus lives in the skin or mucous membranes and usually causes no symptoms and will clear without treatment. However some women do get visible genital warts, or have precancerous changes in the cervix, vulva, or anus. The critical factor in the development of cervical cancer appears to be a persistent viral infection.
Although HPV can cause mild Pap test abnormalities, most types of HPV do not have serious health consequences. However, approximately 10 of the 30 identified genital HPV types can lead, in rare cases, to the development of cervical cancer. To confirm a diagnosis of cervical HPV, DNA testing for the presence of the virus is required.
A vaccine to prevent infection with the types of HPV most commonly associated with cervical cancer is available. This vaccine is recommended for girls and young women between the ages of 9 and 26. The vaccine is extremely effective. However, it’s important to note that women are not protected if they have been infected with HPV prior to vaccination, so it is crucial that women receive the immunization before potential exposure to the virus.
The risk for developing HPV infections increases with multiple sexual partners and sexual activity during the teenage years. Keep in mind that it can be difficult to determine whether a partner who has been sexually active in the past is currently infected.