There are many types of papillomavirus. Most resolve on their own and are unlikely to cause health problems. However, some types pose a high risk if the infection remains in the body.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus. The virus can be transmitted through vaginal, anal, or skin-to-skin oral sex. A person may not realize they have the infection because it sometimes causes no symptoms. Read on to learn about the types of HPV, as well as tests, treatments, and prevention methods.
What is high-risk HPV?
Some types of HPV can cause cancer. This means that they are “high risk”. When a high-risk type of HPV infects cells, it changes the way they communicate with each other. It also causes cells to multiply. Usually, the immune system becomes aware of these cells and regulates them.
However, if these abnormal cells remain, they may continue to change and become precancerous . HPV infects the thin, flat squamous cells that line the inside surface of certain organs. This is why most HPV-related cancers are called squamous cell carcinomas. The virus can also cause cancer in the glandular cells of the cervix, and this cancer is called adenocarcinoma.
The different types of HPV
There are more than 200 types of HPV. Doctors classify them into two categories: oncogenic and non-oncogenic. At least 15 types of HPV are oncogenic, meaning they can cause a Cancer. The non-oncogenic types usually do not cause serious health problems. A physician may refer to non-oncogenic HPV types as “wart-causing HPV”.
Low-risk, or non-oncogenic, virus types rarely cause precancerous lesions, but they can nevertheless lead to cellular changes. If certain low-risk types of HPV remain in the body, they can cause genital warts. These are benign growths that can develop around the genitals, groin and anus.
Approx 65 low-risk HPV types can infect the genital area. HPV types 6 and are the most common causes of genital warts , causing together approximately 90 % of cases. Some low-risk types can also cause warts to appear in the mouth and throat. This condition is called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, and it is more common in children than in adults. These growths are often benign, but they can lead to severe airway obstruction and complications. In extremely rare cases, these warts become cancerous.
HPV can cause several types of cancer if the system immune system fails to clear the infection. Research suggests that the types 15 and 20 of HPV cause 65 % of cervical cancer cases uterus and precancerous lesions of the cervix. A small study conducted in 2019 showed that just under half of participants with HPV had type 18. Estimates suggest that high-risk HPV causes 3% of cervical cancer cases and all cancer cases in women and 2% of all cancer cases in men.
In the early stages, cervical cancer may not cause symptoms. If symptoms occur, they usually include:
– abnormal vaginal bleeding
– abnormal vaginal discharge, at strong odor or containing blood
– pain during intercourse
– pelvic pain
High-risk HPV can also affect cells in other areas, which can also turn into cancer. Other HPV-related cancers include:
HPV screening test
The main purpose of cervical screening is to identify precancerous lesions caused by HPV. Doctors can remove lesions to prevent the development of invasive cancers. Because HPV can develop without causing symptoms, regular screenings are an important way to catch any changes early. Anyone with a weakened immune system or a medical history of cervical damage may need more frequent screening.
Reliable tests for detecting HPV exist. Ideally, any woman between the ages of 26 to 29 years is screened for cervical cancer every 3 years. For all women aged from 26 to 65 years, an HPV test and a smear should be performed every 5 years or a smear only every 3 years.
Pap smear was once the only type of cervical cancer screening. It involves taking cells from the cervix. It only takes a few minutes and it is an outpatient test. The doctor sends the sample to a laboratory, which checks for abnormalities in the cervical cells.
Cervical cancer screening now also includes the HPV test. In some cases, the doctor may recommend doing a smear and an HPV test at the same time.
A smear is to check that the cells do not present precancerous changes. The HPV test looks for the DNA of the virus. A doctor can order this test only if a person is likely to have a high-risk infection. The Pap smear and HPV test results allow the doctor to get a clearer picture of a person’s risk of cervical cancer. Negative results from both tests indicate a very low risk of developing precancerous lesions of the cervix in the next few years.
There is currently no treatment for the infection. But treatments can address the health problems caused by HPV.
Although 20 to 30 % of people infected with HPV have warts that go away on their own over time, treatment can help manage outbreaks and reduce the discomfort caused. Treatment may involve applying a prescription cream or gel to the affected area or removing the warts.
Surgery is required to remove precancerous cells caused by high-risk HPV. This prevents these cells from becoming cancerous. A doctor can remove these cells from the cervix through a procedure called electrosurgical loop excision or cervical cryotherapy. Treatment for HPV-related cancer is generally the same as for other cancers in the area. The best approach may depend on the location, type and stage of the cancer.
Here are some examples of these treatments
– targeted therapy
Prevention of HPV contamination
You can reduce your risk of contracting HPV by
– by getting vaccinate against HPV
– always using barrier methods, such as condoms or dental dams, during sex
– by limiting the number of sexual partners
The vaccine protects people against several high-risk types of HPV, including types 16 and 18, as well as low-risk types associated with warts. Ideally, everyone should receive the HPV vaccine at the age of -12 years to reduce the risk of cancer related to HPV. This vaccine is given in two doses, 6- months apart. People aged from 15 to 26 years receive it in three doses. After receiving the required doses of vaccine, 98 % of people aged 12 to 26 years of people develop the necessary antibodies to protect them from high-risk strains, indicating that the vaccine is highly effective. For people over the age of 26 years and at risk of new HPV infection, a doctor can discuss benefits of receiving the vaccine, although it may be less effective.
Cervical cancer. (2022).
Leslie, SW, et al. (2021). Genital warts.
Zykova, TA, et al. (2021). Prevalence and variety of HPV types in dependence on gender and age.
Human papillomavirus (HPV). (2019).
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