Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are those transmitted through sexual contact, and can be caused by viruses, bacteria or other microorganisms. Many people still feel ashamed or afraid to talk about the subject, despite being extremely important. Understanding more about STIs is essential for the population to know when it is necessary to seek a health professional and how to prevent these diseases.
Therefore, in today’s text, we will talk about a virus that can cause an STI, HPV. Follow up to learn more about HPV symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and answer any other questions about it.
What is HPV?
The acronym HPV comes from the name human papillomavirus, and is used to name a group of viruses of more than 100 different types (called numbers) that can cause sexually transmitted infections. The viruses in this group can infect the skin and mucous membranes, can cause warts in the oral region (vocal cords, lips, mouth), anal, genital or urethral. Some types can even lead to more serious genital lesions.
The different types of HPV can be classified as low risk and high risk. High-risk ones are those that can cause a persistent genital infection and lead to the development of precancerous lesions, which can eventually become cancer. There are 12 types of virus classified as high risk, but the ones that are most commonly associated with cancer are the numbers 16 and 18.
Low-risk viruses are those associated with the formation of warts, which cannot cause malignant or cancerous lesions. The most common types in this case are numbers 6 and 11.
HPV is considered highly contagious, so that only exposure to infected skin or mucosa can lead to contamination. The main form of infection is through sex, including:
- oral-genital contact;
- genital-genital contact;
- manual-genital contact.
In this way, contagion by the virus can happen even when there is no vaginal or anal penetration. Transmission can also happen from pregnant women to the fetus, called vertical transmission.
HPV and cervical cancer
Many have heard about the relationship between HPV and the cervix. But how does this relationship work?
In cases of persistent high-risk virus lesions, cancer precursor lesions can form. If they are not identified and treated early, they can progress to cancer. The main cancer associated with HPV infection is that of the cervix, but the virus can also lead to cancer of the anus, vagina, vulva, oropharynx and mouth.
What are the symptoms of HPV?
1. Asymptomatic infection
The first point to be highlighted regarding HPV symptoms is that, in most cases, the virus does not cause symptoms and is spontaneously eliminated by the body. This means that the person can become infected and then eliminate the virus without even knowing anything. HPV can remain in the body for up to years without any sign.
In some people, the virus can persist and start to actually cause changes and the onset of disease.
Warts arise when some low-risk HPV persists and is not eliminated by the body. These warts usually appear weeks or months after sexual contact with an HPV-infected person. The lesions look similar to a small cauliflower and the most common sites of appearance are the vulva, the vagina, the anus and the penis. There are also extragenital manifestations, more frequent in the oral cavity and aerodigestive tract.
3. Advanced symptoms
When the infection is caused by a persistent high-risk virus, it can progress to precancerous lesions and cancer. In such cases, it may be that the person remains asymptomatic or only presents symptoms when the cancer is at a more advanced stage. Cervical cancer can cause symptoms such as:
- abnormal vaginal bleeding;
- pain in the pelvis;
- pain during intercourse.
How is the diagnosis made?
The diagnosis of HPV is made according to the type of virus (high or low risk) and the manifestations that each type causes. In the case of low-risk viruses, the diagnosis is made by means of a clinical examination by a medical professional to identify warts on the genitals or elsewhere. It is usually done by the gynecologist for women and urologist for men.
The diagnosis of alterations related to high-risk viruses, on the other hand, is made by means of specialized exams for the direct visualization of malignant alterations in cells. The most well-known test is the pap smear, with the collection of cells from the cervix. Other tests include colposcopy, anuscopy, peniscopy. They all aim to distinguish benign from malignant lesions.
What is the treatment of HPV?
First, it is important to note that there is no specific treatment for the HPV virus. However, cellular changes caused by the virus can be treated. The treatment of warts can be done in different ways:
- use of local creams and ointments, in cases of minor injuries, in small amounts and more external;
- cauterization of warts, made by laser or cryotherapy.
As the virus is not eliminated, there is a high chance that warts will reappear after some time, requiring new treatment.
The treatment of malignant lesions depends on the stage of the lesions, whether they are precancerous or have already become cancer. The lesion can be surgically removed, only in place, or total hysterectomy (completely removed from the uterus) may be indicated. In more advanced cases, it may also be necessary to remove the lymph nodes and perform radiotherapy at the site.
How to prevent it?
As mentioned, HPV transmission can happen even when vaginal or anal penetration does not happen. In addition, it can happen through skin contact and does not depend on the man’s ejaculation. In this way, it is difficult for contagion to be prevented completely through the use of condoms, but, in any case, it must be used throughout the sexual act.
The HPV vaccine is the most effective way to prevent the virus. It prevents infection by 4 types of virus, 2 from the high-risk group and 2 from the low-risk group. These types are precisely those that are most related to the appearance of changes, so the vaccine is effective.
Another important point is to perform the Pap smear periodically, in order to detect any changes early.
Be aware of HPV symptoms and ways of prevention. That way, you can preserve your health and see a health professional as soon as you notice any difference. Also remember that it is important to visit your gynecologist or urologist from time to time in order to perform a check-up and detect any problems that are not yet causing symptoms.