HPV in Women

There is a lot of talk about human papillomavirus (HPV) and its link to certain oral, neck and cervical cancers.  But what you don’t know is HPV is so common that most people (men and women) have some type of HPV in their lifetime.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 79 million Americans currently carry HPV and each year, 14 million people will become newly infected.

“HPV is prevalent in our environment with more than 100 types of viruses, ranging in degree from low-risk to high-risk and many risks in between”, says Raymond Whitted, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist at West Kendall Baptist Hospital. “After their first sexual intercourse, 20 percent of women will be HPV positive, and by the time a woman is 50 years old, she has had some form of the virus.”  But, he says, most viruses do not turn into cancer.

For women, the most common health problems linked to HPV are genital warts and cervical cancer, although HPV has also been linked to other types of cancers. “On the whole, the symptoms of HPV are generally non-existent,” says Dr. Whitted. “HPV may appear as a genital wart or something that looks like a wart, or be diagnosed at your yearly pelvic exam when your PAP comes back as abnormal.”

“If you have an abnormal PAP, there are many different types of treatment options available after a biopsy is taken,” says Dr. Whitted. “The level of the biopsy determines the treatment.  If the biopsy is low-grade, the treatment can be as simple as changing your lifestyle by not smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, eating healthy and getting sufficient rest.  Another form of treatment is antioxidant therapy, which will usually resolve 80 percent of the cases.”

For higher-grade PAP results, the treatment is to freeze the cervix in the office or perform a cone biopsy in the office or in an outpatient surgical setting, with the recommendation that the patient return every six months for PAP tests until the tests are normal for several months.

“However, the main treatment is to reduce exposure to the virus by using condoms while sexually active,” Dr. Whitted says. “Contracting the HPV virus cannot be prevented.  The virus has been around forever. You could run yourself into the ground asking ‘Who gave it to me?’ and never figure it out. Being diagnosed with HPV doesn’t mean anyone has been unfaithful – it’s just another virus.”

Recently the U.S. Food and Drug Administration  (FDA) approved the HPV test as the first step in cervical cancer screening for women aged 25 and older, but you have to do your part too. “Using condoms and having one sexual partner might help, but it is not a guarantee,” Dr. Whitted said. “Having regular exams is the key to early detection.”

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