Today’s Moment of Science concerns a virus called HPV.These three letters stand for human papillomavirus. Health experts believe it is the most widely spread sexually transmitted disease in the United States.
That’s right, I said STD, but I should clarify first that over one hundred types of HPV have been identified and only about thirty of those are sexually transmitted. So what is HPV? Or more importantly, how does it affect one’s health? Human papillomavirus is probably better known to most people as warts.
Whether the wart is on a foot, an elbow, or the genitals, it’s caused by a type of HPV. Warts themselves are rather harmless and can be removed, but what makes genital warts a concern is that a few strains of the virus that create the warts can also cause the growth of abnormal cells that could possibly turn into cancer, especially in women. In particular, the cervix seems to be at risk, one reason why an annual Pap smear is important.
As is the case with many STDs a person may carry HPV without showing any visible signs or symptoms of the infection. In fact, just as HPV is less likely to cause cancer in men as it is in women, genital warts are also less common in men. But it doesn’t take a visible sign of the infection to pass it on to sexual partners.
There is treatment for genital warts and abnormalities caused by HPV, but no cure for the virus itself. Thus, once the warts or abnormalities go away, there is no guarantee they won’t come back. Treatments include freezing, acid, surgical removal, and laser treatment, as well as topical or ingestible medications.