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What’s the Big Deal about HPV?
With more than 80 percent of the world’s population afflicted with HPV — the most common sexually transmitted disease — chances are high that you have HPV, especially if you’ve ever had an abnormal pap smear. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) refers to a group of more than 80 viruses, most of which have no significant effects on the human body. So don’t panic and come in for your gynecology exam.
A handful of those HPV infections, however, can cause genital warts (condyloma acuminate) or have been associated with abnormal pap smears and cervical cancer (dysplasia). While most women will not develop cervical cancer, HPV likely will appear in the form of abnormal pap smears and/or unsightly genital warts. These effects are treatable, although not curable.
But treatment isn’t that much fun. It can require multiple treatments, such as colposcopy, freezing the warts or electrical cautery removal of the cervix. Treatments also can result in cervical incompetence (not being able to carry a baby to term) and infertility. The emotional distress of having a sexually transmitted disease, along with multiple trips to the gynecologist for surveillance and uncomfortable treatments for warts or dysplasia should not be underestimated.
Of course, the best treatment is to prevent HPV in the first place. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the only way to totally protect yourself against HPV is to avoid any kind of sexually activity that involves genital contact. This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But let’s repeat that, the CDC specifically says “genital contact.” Intercourse is not necessary to contract HPV. Plus, many people who have HPV may not show any signs or symptoms and can pass along the virus without either partner even being aware of it.
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) recently approved a vaccine to prevent infection with four of the most aggressive types of this virus. The HPV vaccine, Gardasil, can prevent up to 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts, if taken before exposure to these high-risk virus types. In short, before sexual activity. While Gardasil is currently recommended for girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26, the FDA is investigating expanding these age ranges to include women in their 30s and 40s.
We cannot stress enough how important it is to take this extra ounce of prevention and visit for a gynecology exam. Because 74 percent of the cases of HPV in the U.S. occur in 15- to 24-year-olds, our doctors at Fayetteville Woman’s Care recommend that our younger patients get the Gardasil vaccine prior to becoming sexually active. The sooner, the better. It’s worth the peace of mind.
Even if a patient is sexually active already or is out of the at-risk age range, we still recommend the vaccine. There is no way to determine what type of HPV she has been exposed to. The vaccine will still target the remaining strains, thus reducing the cervical cancer risk.
The Gardasil vaccination comes as a three-shot series taken over six months and costs about $350. Most insurance plans are now covering it (call your insurance company to confirm.) Plus, low-income families may qualify to receive the HPV vaccine through a federal program called Vaccines for Children.
If you are concerned about HPV infection and want to receive a simple vaccine to help prevent cervical cancer and genital warts, call our office today. Ask whether you should be immunized against HPV. Just one less thing to worry about.
Like all warts, genital warts (also called venereal warts) are caused by a type of human papilloma virus (HPV) and appear as flesh-colored, pink or grayish-white growths on the genital or anal areas of the body. Skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity (not necessarily intercourse) is what allows them to spread.
In addition to the growths around the genital and/or anal areas, some women may notice mild irritation, burning, itching or pain, increased or foul-smelling vaginal discharge or vaginal bleeding or pain with intercourse. Often, though, you may notice nothing at all, which is why your yearly exam and Pap smear is so important. Even though the warts themselves are benign and don’t cause cancer, they still indicate that you have HPV, which is a known cause of cancer. While there is no treatment to cure HPV, there are very good treatments for the symptoms.
Genital warts can be removed as an out-patient procedure at the Fayetteville Woman’s Care office through cryotherapy (freezing off the warts with liquid nitrogen), electrocautery (burning them off with an electrical current, known as a LEEP) or with chemicals. More advanced or numerous warts may require surgery. Some procedures may require a local anesthetic.
Depending on the size and location of your warts, your doctor may recommend imiquimod, a cream you apply at home. Imiquimod enhances your immune system, helping your body rid itself of the warts and delaying or even preventing their recurrence.
It is very important that you not try to get rid of genital warts by using over-the-counter medicines meant for the types of warts found on the hands and feet. They’re too harsh for the genital area.
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