The Silent Killer: HPV Do You Have It?

July 16, 2012  |  

By Mercy Edionwe, MD

So the doctor calls you into the office because she has something to tell you. Just a few weeks ago, you decided to get a pap smear.  At that time, the doctor told you that if the test was fine, you wouldn’t hear from her office. Now, as you sit anxiously awaiting the results, your mind starts to wonder, “Could I have AIDS, syphilis, or gonorrhea?” A chill runs down your spine as the door opens and in walks the doctor. She sits down and she tells you, “Ma’am, the results of your pap smear show that you have HPV?” Your mind starts to wonder, “What is HPV?”

Well, let me break it down for you.

HPV? What is that?

HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus. It is a family of viruses that look similar to each other but can cause different conditions in the body. Scientists associate the individual viruses as types. In general, there are a total of 40 types.  One type of HPV can cause warts while another type can cause cancer. The type of the virus someone has dictates what kind of disease the person will get.

HPV can be contracted from skin-to-skin contact.  It does not matter if you are into oral, anal, or plain old regular sex. If your partner is infected, you will have a high chance of being infected too.

And for all you virgins out there, even if you are not sexually active, you can still be affected. Why?  HPV can be found within the skin of your private parts. So, if your genitals or mouth have direct skin contact with an infected person’s genitals, you are at risk of getting it as well. The learning lesson is that with HPV, you are not safe with just 4-play.

Why is it important?

HPV can cause cervical cancer, which is the third most common cancer in the world. Cervical cancer is also the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women living in developing countries. In other words, HPV can be deadly.

What signs or symptoms will someone have with HPV? Why would you call it the silent killer?

The problem is that you can’t always tell, hence being called the silent killer. Someone with HPV can walk around without any signs or symptoms.  On the other hand, HPV can be so sneaky and show up in different  forms.  It can cause genital or oral warts in both men and women. It can also cause cancer of the penis, cervix, vagina, anus, and even oral cancer. When it attacks these parts of the body, the person may not notice anything until it is too late.

There is another twist to the story. Not everyone who gets the virus gets the disease. According to the CDC, 90% of people who are infected with HPV do not have the virus after two years. The reason for this is that the body is designed to naturally clear it from its system, which would be great news if it stopped there.  However, the problem is there is no way to know which person will be able to clear the virus from their system and which person will not.

What can I do to find out if I have it?

You should report to your doctor if you see any suspicious warts or skin conditions in your genitals, mouth, or anywhere in your body. In HPV, the warts can resemble cauliflowers.

You should also report abnormal vaginal or rectal bleeding to your doctor.

Ladies, it is important to get a well women exam done yearly, especially if you are sexually active. A well women exam is an exam that your doctor does to check on the health of your vagina, ovaries, cervix, and other girl parts.  When they do the well women exam, they perform a test called a pap smear. Because HPV tends to change the way the cells look on the cervix microscopically, a pap smear checks for abnormal cells on your cervix (the opening hole to your uterus).  Your doctor will use a tool to gently scrape some of the cells off the cervix to send them to the lab. This process is similar to the common paternity test where someone scrapes the inside of the cheek for cells.  At the lab, the cells will be examined more closely with the use of a microscope.  Different tests can also be done on the cells to detect either HPV or cervical cancer. Well women exams are extremely important because early detection of HPV can prevent cervical cancer or stop a cancerous cells from growing to the point that they could potentially kill.

Unfortunately, at this time, there is no screening test for men.

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