What you should know about the common cancer-causing virus HPV

What you should know about the common cancer-causing virus HPV
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Q: I recently had a pap smear. The results came back normal… except that I tested as HPV positive. I asked what HPV meant, and the doctor said it stood for human papilloma virus. What is this?

HPV, as you rightly said, stands for human papilloma virus. However, it is not one virus, but more specifically, a group of more than 150 viruses.

Each HPV virus has a number, e.g. HPV 1, 2, 3 and so on.

There are certain types of HPV that are associated with certain diseases.

The word "papilloma" means a kind of wart that results from certain HPV types.

Not all HPV viruses cause warts, so this is actually a misnomer.

Is HPV common?

It is very common.

HPV lives in your body's epithelial cells. These are the cells that coat your skin's surface, and also the surfaces of the vagina, anus, vulva, cervix, penis, mouth and throat.

HPV is the most common sexually-transmitted infection.

At least 50 per cent of all people who have had sex at some point in their lives have an HPV infection.

In fact, most of the time, you don't even know you have an infection.

This is as it frequently doesn't produce any symptoms and often goes away by itself.

Also read: How often should you really get a pap smear?

You mentioned many types of HPV. What types are associated with what disease?

Sixty types of HPV can cause warts on your hands and feet.

Forty other types are sexually transmitted and like to infect your body's mucous membranes, such as your genitals.

There are high-risk types and low-risk types.

High-risk HPV types are HPV 16 and 18, which cause about 70 per cent of cervical cancers. Other high-risk types include HPV 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58.

The low-risk types such as HPV 6 and 11 cause 90 per cent of genital warts, which rarely become cancerous and are perfectly treatable.

Also read: Are pap smears enough to prevent cervical cancer?

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are soft growths that appear around your genitals.

They are sometimes painful, itchy and discomfiting. They may produce discharge and may sometimes bleed.

They can occur for both men and women.

They may be very small or large, sometimes appearing like a cauliflower.

For women, they are usually more dangerous because some of them can progress to cervical cancer.

They can appear on the penis, scrotum, anus, groin, or even thighs for men, and the vagina (inside and outside), anus (inside and outside) and cervix for women.

If you have had oral sex with an infected partner, they can also appear on the lips, tongue and throat.

I have HPV. But I've always had sex with a condom. Why did I get it then?

HPV is spread through contact with the infected genital skin, mucous membranes or bodily fluids of your sexual partner.

It can be passed on during sexual intercourse or oral sex.

So, even if you use a condom, there are parts of your partner's skin that are not covered with a condom. Therefore, using a condom doesn't fully protect you from getting HPV.

Moreover, not many people realise they have HPV, hence it spreads quite easily as people who have HPV remain sexually active.

Even if you have had sex with only one person, you can get HPV.

Sometimes, you develop symptoms years after you have had sex with someone who is infected.

Therefore, you can't really tell when it was that you first got infected.

However, you are more likely to get HPV if you have sex at an early age; have many sexual partners; or have a sexual partner who has been with a lot of other sexual partners.

Also read: 9 per cent of women have HPV infections: Study

How is HPV associated with cancer?

People, especially women, are afraid of HPV because it is associated with cervical cancer.

As mentioned, there are certain strains of HPV that can transform cervical cells into cancerous ones.

That is why you have to keep on monitoring your cervix for any changes through a six-monthly or annual pap smear.

HPV can also rarely lead to penile or anal cancer.

Can I treat HPV?

There is no cure for HPV itself, but the good news is that it often goes off on its own.

Most of the treatment for HPV revolves around the symptoms that it causes.

If you have genital warts, you can certainly treat them with some antivirals and topical treatments. Large warts can also be surgically lasered off.

The best way to protect against HPV though is through vaccination.

There are three vaccines that can be given to boys and girls from ages nine to 26. They protect against certain strains of high-risk HPV.

If you have HPV, it is always wise to go for an annual or six-monthly routine pap smear and cervical check-up.

Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment. For further information, e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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