What is HPV and how is it spread?
HPV is a common type of STD that can infect the skin cells ('epithelium') and spread through skin to skin contact with an infected body parts and via sexual activity. Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV. You also can develop symptoms years after you have sex with someone who is infected. This can make it hard to know when you first became infected.
There are more than 200 distinct types of HPV that have been identified. There are divided into low and high risks subtype. High- risk HPV sub-types (16 and 18) can become precursor for development of precancerous and cancerous cells in the cervix, anus and genital area. Low-risk HPV sub-types (6 and 11) can cause development of genital warts. Genital warts are benign and do not lead to cancer but are highly infectious and can be persistent and debilitating.
Infection with one type of HPV does not prevent infection with another type.
What are the symptoms and clinical manifestation of HPV infection?
Most HPV infections do not cause any symptoms or disease and 90% of the infection can resolve spontaneously within two years.
HPV- causing cervical cancer can present with abnormal vaginal bleeding such as bleeding in-between menses or after sexual intercourse, abdominal vaginal discharge and pain over the lower abdomen. HPV- causing anal cancer can present with abnormal rectal pain, discharge, bleeding and abnormal bowel habit. HPV can cause vulva, vagina and penile cancer.
HPV infection can also cause genital warts and recurrent growth ('papillomatosis') in the lining of the respiratory tract.
How can I avoid getting HPV and the health problems caused by HPV?
You can get vaccinated with HPV vaccination (Gardasil 9) to protect yourself against HPV infection. The vaccination is recommended starting from a young age between 11 or 12 up to age of 45 years old. The vaccine is best taken before you start having sexual activity.
You also need to do regular pap smear for screening of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer affecting women in Malaysia. Ministry of Health Malaysia recommends to pap smear for all women between the ages of 20 and 65 years old who are, or who have been, sexually active. If two consecutive yearly tests are negative, subsequent screening can be done every three years.
It is also important to use condom correctly and consistently at every sexual encounter. Use of condom can reduce your risk of HPV infection but not 100%. You can still get HPV infection if your sexual partner has genital warts in the area that is not covered by the condom.
It is also important to avoid high risk sexual behavior, multiple sexual partner and smoking as it can increase risk of HPV infection. If you have any question regarding HPV infection and vaccination, talk to our doctor for more information.