We continue this series of articles on Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) reviewing Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). 

Most people who have sex will have HPV at some point in their lives with little or no significant symptoms.  However, one of the most important facts about HPV is that some virus in this class are  high risk HPV which cause persistent infections which can cause cellular changes that could develop into cancer if left untreated.  In fact, the high risk type of HPV are to cervical cancer.  Best medical practice indicates  HPV testing for certain age groups during the routine PAP screen for women.  This usually happens if the results of the PAP demonstrate cellular changes that indicate testing for HPV.  Although there is no treatment at this time for HPV.  There are ways to treat the infected tissues to prevent further damage and ultimately cancer. 

Common symptoms:   The many types of HPV are as high risk HPV or low risk HPV. 

  • The low risk HPV infection can cause genital warts.  The warts are usually painless and most people will be able to clear the infection on their own.
  • The high risk HPV can occur without producing noticeable symptoms, especially if the area infected is not readily visible, i.e. linings of the vagina, cervix or rectum.  The high risk is a persistent infection that can stay for several years without being noticed.  It is this type that can ultimately cause cervical cancer in women and (although more rarely) can also cause other kinds of cancer in both men and women.

Vaccine:  Unlike most STDs,  there is a vaccine to help prevent HPV infection.  If you think you can benefit from having this vaccine ask your doctor to find out if you are a candidate for vaccination.  It should be noted that according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccine is most effective before the person has had sexual contact with their first partner.

HPV test  is a molecular DNA test that looks for HPV on a cervical sample. Most commonly, doctors take the sample as part of the routine PAP smear test.  Therefore, you should only be tested with the help of a doctor who can collect the sample properly.  In the rare case where a doctor only collects for a PAP and does not refer a sample for HPV, the patient can ask for the doctor to collect another sample to be tested independently.  However, this is certainly not the recommended way of processing this test.  It is best to obtain the PAP and HPV test from the same laboratory with the doctor referring the specimen and receiving the results in order to counsel the person properly on how to follow treatment.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has published easy to read fact sheets on all the Sexually Transmitted Diseases and associated conditions.


HPV by Electron Microscopy
Credit: NCI