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The Symptoms of HPV


HPV or Human Papillomavirus is one of the papillomavirus group of viruses that can infect humans. Papillomaviruses infect the epithelial, or outer, layer of the skin or mucous membrane in the body. There are close to 200 identified strains of HPV.

What are the symptoms of HPV?

The majority of HPV strains actually produce no noticeable symptoms while other strains may or may not produce symptoms in some people. You can be infected with HPV without being aware of it because there may be no obvious symptoms.

The most common symptom of HPV is warts; these may be produced by some strains of the virus. There are also certain HPV strains that may develop into certain cancers, mainly genital cancers.

Warts, or verrucae, are non-cancerous growths of the skin caused by a virus which promotes rapid cell growth in the outer layers of membranes and skin. Warts have traditionally been considered highly contagious but it is now known that it is genital warts which fall into this category with other types of warts being much less contagious.
There are different types of warts –

  • Common warts are caused by some types of cutaneous HPV. These generally occur on hands and feet, but may also appear on elbows and knees. They have the characteristic raised, cauliflower appearance that we associate with skin warts and are most common among children. Common warts may also occur in the genital and anal area but these are not precursors to cancer.

  • Flat warts mostly are found on the face, forehead and arms and are also most common in teens and children. They generally do not lead to cancer.

  • Plantar warts occur on the soles of the feet. They differ from other types of wart in that they grow inward, which makes walking quite painful.

  • Periungual or subungual warts are found around or under the fingernail or on the cuticle of the nail. They tend to be more difficult to treat than other types of warts.

Are HPV symptoms dangerous?

It is possible to have the virus for some time before displaying any symptoms; during this time you could have been infecting other people. The longer you have the virus, the higher the risk of developing cancer from HPV.

Common warts are more inconvenient than dangerous although if they bleed, they could become infected. These, with other types of skin warts, are easily treated and, although they may return, will eventually disappear.

Genital warts are a different story, however. Genital warts may occur in the vagina, cervix, vulva or anus in women and the penis, scrotum or anus in men. They may also occur in the mouth area, including the lips and throat. Genital warts may be flat or raised, smooth or cauliflower-like; they could be too small to be seen with the naked eye.

Several strains of HPV can cause genital warts but 90% of cases are caused by HPV6 and HPV11; these strains do not cause warts on other parts of the body. Genital warts are extremely contagious and may be spread through any contact with infected genitals, not only through sexual intercourse. While use of condoms helps to restrict infection, it is not fool-proof.

As a general rule, the strains of HPV that lead to cancer do not produce the symptom of warts. However, it is possible to be infected with several strains of the virus at the same time, so the occurrence of genital warts cannot rule out the existence of pre-cancerous HPV.

HPV6 and HPV11 can also cause the rare condition of respiratory papillomavirus in which the warts occur on parts of the respiratory tract, such as the larynx or windpipe. This condition may require repeat surgical procedures, can recur, could create breathing difficulties and, rarely, lead to cancer.

Other rare symptoms may include itching of the genital area, increased vaginal discharge, vaginal bleeding during or after intercourse, moisture in the area of the warts.

Does everyone infected with HPV get symptoms?

No. This is what makes it so difficult to contain the virus. You could be infected for years and be unaware that you have HPV. If you have multiple sexual partners, you would be innocently spreading this contagious virus.

How do I know if I have HPV?

Unless you get an obvious symptom or sign, like warts, you won't know unless you get tested. In women, this is simple

– the abnormal cells caused by the virus will be identified during your regular Pap test. This is yet another excellent reason for making sure you have this important test every year. It has been shown that HPV is present in nearly every case of cervical cancer, so the regular Pap test is the best means of early detection of this cancer.
There is as yet no simple test for men to identify HPV infection, although doctors are now recommending that gay men have regular anal Pap tests to aid in early identification of infection.

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