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What is HPV?
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High Risk HPV
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What is HPV 16 and 18

What is HPV? (An Overview)


HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus; it is one of the papillomavirus group of viruses that can infect humans. Around 200 of the identified strains of HPV actually cause no symptoms in people; some are the cause of warts on the skin, called verrucae, while there are others that can lead to certain cancers including cancer of the penis and anus in men and of the vagina, cervix, vulva and anus in women.

Of the large number of types of HPV, over 30 are classified as sexually transmitted diseases, able to be spread through any sexual contact, not just sexual intercourse. Many of these HPV infections cause no long-term problems and usually disappear on their own within a year or two. However, ongoing infection with one of the 'high risk' strains of HPV is known to lead to pre-cancerous lesions and even to invasive cancers. Infection with human papillomavirus has been identified in the vast majority of cervical cancer cases.

The significance between HPV and cancer was first proposed by Stephan Jablonska from Poland in 1972. This was then confirmed in 1978 by Jablonska and Orth when they identified HPV-5 in a case of skin cancer. In 1983, zur Hausen confirmed his theory that HPV was implicated in cervical cancer when he discovered HPV-16 and -18 in cases of cervical cancer.

HPV has been estimated by scientists as the most prevalent sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the U.S. as well as in many other Western countries. Most sexually-active women and men are likely to contract HPV at some stage, whether they experience any symptoms or not. Statistics from the American Social Health Association indicate that nearly 80% of sexually-active citizens will acquire HPV in their lives.

Over 80% of American women will be infected with a minimum of one type of genital human papillomavirus before that age of 50. Of the different STDs that were studied in research in 2000, genital HPV was the infection that was the most common. In the same year, nearly 75% of people who were infected with HPV were aged 15 to 24 years.

Research into the occurrence of HPV in the general population can appear inconsistent. This is because of the various parameters used by the researchers – some study different strains of the virus, others look only at people who have experienced symptoms while others only study HPV in women.

The highest prevalence of infection with HPV is in the 20 to 24 year age bracket, for both the high risk and the low risk strains. The occurrence of HPV appears to decrease with age, possibly due to the body's immune system dealing with the virus. It has been shown recently by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine that the virus is frequently cleared by the body when the person has an immune system that functions well.

Many people who contract HPV experience no symptoms at all and are unaware that they have it. The most common HPV symptom, and the one that is the most recognized, is the appearance of warts in the genital or anal region. Many of the known strains of HPV cause genital warts but HPV 6 and HPV 11 are responsible for around 90% of the cases with these symptoms.

The strains that cause cervical cancer do not usually cause genital warts, but it is possible for patients to be infected with more than one strain of HPV at any time. People can transmit the virus without having any genital or anal warts.

The immune system frequently deals with an infection of HPV and clears it from the body. There is currently no treatment or cure for HPV, but there are certain tests that detect the virus in women, the most common being the Pap test. There is no test for men at this time.

Two vaccines have been developed that prevent women contracting HPV16 and HPV18, the two strains that cause cervical cancer. These vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, are only effective if the woman has not ever been infected with these strains of HPV.

Education remains the most effective preventative measure against HPV at this time, so that women understand the importance of the HPV vaccine as well as the necessity of having an annual Pap test. All sexually active people need to be aware of how this virus is transmitted and teens and pre-teens need to be educated in the various ways the virus can be contracted and spread.

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