Chances are, you've come into contact with human papilloma virus, to use its formal title. The group of infections are everywhere (80% of us will contract one, at some point) and you do not need to be having lots of sex with a truckload of people to have one shimmy into your system.
For something so prevalent, there's a real lack of knowledge, though, on everything an understanding of the HPV vaccine to what HPV 'treatment,' might look like (more on these, later). Recent research from Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, for example, showed that 51% of women quizzed didn't know that HPV is linked to cervical cancer.
Which is why, with the help of Dr Anita Mitra, a gynaecologist and the author of The Gynae Geek: Your No-Nonsense Guide to ‘Down There’ Healthcare (Harper Thorsons, £14.99), WH has decided to break down what you need to know.
Never get caught short on your HPV knowledge, again.
What is HPV?
HPV stands for the human papilloma virus. It's a name for a group of viruses that can affect 'your skin and the moist membranes lining your body,' according to the latest NHS guidance.
Typically, we're talking about your cervix, mouth and throat and anus. Whilst there are over 100 forms of HPV, the 40 versions that come into play around your genital area are the ones you're probably the most familiar with.
How is HPV transmitted?
These infections are super common – and very contagious. They're passed along via genital contact, so, sex and sexual activity.
Issues that can arise from HPV include:
Some sorts of cancer in men, such as anal and penile
Is it worth getting the HPV vaccine as an adult?
You may well have had this when you were at school. 'We give it to 12-13 year olds because the idea is to give it to people before they've had sex. This is because it's been shown to protect you better [at this stage],' Dr Mitra told WH during an Instagram Q+A session.
As to whether it's worth having it done as an adult? 'There aren't many studies to show how well it protects adults – and it's likely that it's to a lesser extent. But, it isn't shown to cause any harm,' Dr Mitra says.
'So it could well be worth getting it even if you've had an abnormal smear before, because it might protect you in the future. Just know that it's probably not going to protect you as much as it would have done, when you were a child.'
Writing in her book, Dr Mitra mentions that the vaccine is 'one of the most exciting developments in this field,' but notes that it's had some 'unwarranted bad press,' [an anti HPV documentary was released in 2017, which linked the jab with neurological damage] resulting in declining vaccination rates.
(In February 2019, the World Health Organisation declared that deaths from cervical cancer were increasing as a result of the vaccine being 'underused.')
HPV warts: how do they happen?
Genital warts are indeed caused by HPV – though a lower risk version of the infection than the type that can cause cervical cancer.
In her book, Dr Mitra notes that 'HPV warts are pink and fleshy, and can be itchy, but don’t often cause a lot of problems and you may just feel some little lumps.' It can take up to 18 months from getting infected for warts to actually show up, which does mean that working out who gave it to you can be tricky.
Warts tend to vacate your vulva on their own after a couple of years, but you can have them frozen off, or treat them with topical medication.
The only way to be totally sure you won't get them? Using condoms.
HPV and cancer: what's the link?
Like we said, HPV is the infection that ultimately causes cervical cancer in (very few) women. While most women will be infected with HPV it at some point it usually clears off, with zero problematic effects.
'By the age of fifty, at least 90% of women will have been infected with a high-risk HPV, but 0.75% per cent get cervical cancer... And that’s because the immune system clears the infection in most women,' writes Dr Mitra.
If it doesn't head off, that's when the abnormal cell changes that a smear test tries to detect can begin to manifest.
These changes in your cells tend to take around 10 to 15 years to morph into cervical cancer. In this time, you should have been for a handful of smears which would detect said changes and get you treated. If you do have moderate or severe cell changes (as opposed to mild, which tend to sort themselves out) then you may be seen for treatment, to remove the cells.
This might be via laser therapy, in which the cells are burned away by an ultra hot laser of light, or a loop diathermy. In this, a thin wire loop is used to remove the abnormal tissue.
Know that HPV is way more common than you think
You'd be forgiven for assuming that you've never had HPV, if you've seen no signs or had an abnormal smear. But, Dr Mitra notes, it's everywhere. Just because your system is nifty at telling it to get packing, doesn't mean it never existed in the first place.
How is HPV treated?
Well, it's not. The effects of the infection are what you'll receive treatment for: so, freezing off genital warts or laser removal of abnormal cells in your cervix, for example.
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