INFECTIOUS DISEASE CENTER

Human Papillomavirus in Women

By Michele C. Hollow @michelechollow
 | 
September 25, 2017

Of more than a 100 kinds of the human papillomavirus in women, most are harmless. But do watch out for genital warts and cervical cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, human papillomavirus is so common that nearly all sexually active women can get the virus. The good news is that most cases of human papillomavirus in women are not harmful. Some women may not know that they have it. Causes for concern arise when the human papillomavirus (HPV) develop into cervical cancer.

 

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What is human papillomavirus?

The human papillomavirus in women is a sexually transmitted virus that’s passed on during vaginal and anal sex. HPV is so common that approximately 50 percent of women who have sexual contact with an infected person will get the disease.

Human papillomavirus symptoms in women

It’s important to note that women can get human papillomavirus and not have any signs. That’s because our immune system can defeat an HPV infection before it causes warts. Genital warts, which are small lesions with a bumpy cauliflower-like surface, are the main symptoms of human papillomavirus in women. These warts appear on the vulva, the anus, the cervix, or in the vagina. It’s possible that these human papillomavirus infection symptoms can develop into cervical cancer.

Approximately 12,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Most cases of cervical cancers can be prevented through early detection and treatment of abnormal cell changes that occur in the cervix years before cervical cancer develops. The cell changes are caused by the human papillomavirus.

That’s why women should get an annual Pap test, which detects abnormal cell changes, until they’re 30, then every three years until the ages of 65 to 70. The test involves having your gynecologist take a small sample of cells from your cervix. The cells are then sent to a lab, where they are evaluated under a microscope.

Symptoms of cervical cancer

Often there are no signs, especially at an early stage of the disease because symptoms develop when the cancer invades and grows into nearby tissues in the body. When that occurs, the symptoms of cervical cancer include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding after vaginal sex, after menopause, bleeding and spotting between periods, bleeding after a pelvic exam, or having longer and heavier than usual menstrual periods
  • Unusual vaginal discharge
  • Feeling pain during sex

It’s important to note that these symptoms can be caused by other conditions, too.

Approximately 10 percent of women with high-risk human papillomavirus on the cervix can develop long-lasting infections that put them at risk for cervical cancer. This high-risk form of HPV can also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, anus, throat, tongue, and tonsils.

Does HPV go away?

Although human papillomavirus in women is the most common sexually transmitted disease, “the vast majority of people with HPV get rid of the virus naturally,” said Antonio Pizarro, MD, a board-certified OB/GYN. “It’s not lethal unless it causes untreated cancer, and it’s very likely to simply go away on its own.”

Is human papillomavirus curable?

There is no treatment for HPV. There is, however, treatment for the diseases the human papillomavirus causes, such as genital warts and cervical cancer. Your physician can prescribe topical gels or creams to be applied to the infected area.

Treatment for cervical cancer includes surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, depending on the stage of the cancer.

Prevention of human papillomavirus in women

Most pediatricians will recommend that both girls and boys get vaccinated against human papillomavirus because it protects against cancers caused by the HPV infection. Starting at age 11 or 12, boys and girls can receive two shots of the HPV vaccine six to 12 months apart.

If your child is older than 14, she can receive a three-shot dose over a six-month period. People with certain immunocompromising illnesses between ages 9 and 26 should also receive three doses.

HPV vaccine side effects

In some cases, the HPV vaccine can cause pain, redness, or swelling where the shot was administered. Some patients complain of headaches, fever, nausea, or muscle or joint pain right after or a few hours from when the shot was given. In most cases, however, there are no side effects from the HPV vaccine.

 

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Updated:  

September 25, 2017

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN