This statement above is not an unusual one when a woman is diagnosed with a Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection for the first time. The easy answer to the question is to relax and stop considering harm to a spouse: HPV does not mean that a partner has been unfaithful. It can live in a person harmlessly for years, even decades in some cases.
HPV is a virus that is responsible for abnormal paps and precancers of the cervix, as well as cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and even anal cancers. There are many forms of HPV- low risk strains may cause warts, but don’t cause the more dangerous lesions. High risk strains can cause precancerous cells to develop and grow, but can also live silently in a person for years. In past years, HPV was only found when someone had an abnormal Pap smear. Recently, due to advances in the technology used to detect HPV, high risk HPV screening is done at the time of Pap smear in most women over 30 years of age. Because of this, and to the surprise of many women, asymptomatic infections are found at the time of routine annual exams.
HPV infection is very common in both men and women- perhaps one out of every four women has been infected with a high risk HPV strain. This is why there is such a push to vaccinate teenagers before the onset of sexual activity. While teenagers and women in their 20s are more likely to come into contact with HPV, become infected, and then clear the virus through the work of their immune systems, older women are less likely to clear the virus. For this reason, it can live in someone, but go to hibernation, only to emerge at a later time. While women may not be able to permanently get rid of HPV (there is no treatment for the HPV itself, only its effects when they occur), HPV can go silent again once it has emerged. Most people do not stay HPV+ for extended periods of time.
So what does being positive for high risk HPV mean? It means that a woman has come into contact with HPV through sexual activity at some point in her life, perhaps years prior, and is now showing up on a Pap. Having HPV does not equal having cancer or even precancer, it just means that a woman needs to be monitored more closely by her gynecologist until the HPV clears. Any woman who has more questions about HPV should contact our Mesa Ob Gyn office.
Tamar Gottfried is a Board Certified Obstetrician/ gynecologist practicing general Ob/gyn in Mesa Arizona and affiliated with Banner Desert and Banner Gateway Medical Centers. She can be contacted at 480-545-0059. This is a general interest article only and is not intended to be medical advice. See a medical professional before making medical decisions