Infection with HPV (human papillomavirus) is very common. About 20 million people in the U.S. are affected. About 30 of the 100 HPV types are transmitted sexually. This HPV transmission can cause genital warts or abnormal cell changes in the cervix and other genital areas that can lead to cancer.
While there is no cure for HPV, the good news is the infection often clears on its own. If it does not, and treatment is needed, there are many HPV treatment options. Plus, as more people are vaccinated with the new HPV vaccines, the rates of infection may be greatly reduced.
For now, HPV treatment focuses on the symptoms of the infection. Symptoms include genital warts associated with low-risk HPV types (which don't generally lead to cancers) and the precancerous changes sometimes associated with the high-risk types of HPV.
Simply testing positive for HPV may not mean you will need treatment, at least not immediately. After a positive HPV test, your doctor may suggest close monitoring.
For women, doctors may swab cells from the cervix, just as they are collected for a Pap test, and have them analyzed in a laboratory. This analysis looks for genetic material, or DNA, of HPV within the body's cells. It can detect the high-risk HPV types. No specific test for the strains of HPV that cause cancer is available at this time for men.
If a woman is infected with a type of HPV that can lead to cancer, the doctor may suggest frequent Pap tests to watch for signs of abnormal cell changes in the genital area. Abnormal cell changes in the cervix are a warning sign of possible cervical cancer. The doctor may also do a test called a colposcopy, in which a special magnifying device is used to look closely at the cervix, vagina, and vulva.
The HPV virus itself cannot be treated, but often the body will clear HPV infection on its own. In most women, cervical HPV infection clears on its own within two years of detection.
Note: Pregnant women, or women trying to conceive, should consult closely with their doctor before starting treatment. HPV treatments can affect pregnancy, so doctors may want to delay treatment until after childbirth.
HPV Treatments for Tissue Changes
If the HPV infection has caused abnormal cell changes that could lead to cervical cancer, there are four main treatment options:
Watch and wait. Sometimes the cell changes -- called cervical dysplasia, precancerous cell changes, or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia -- will heal on their own.
Cryotherapy. This involves freezing the abnormal cells with liquid nitrogen.
Conization. This procedure, also known as a cone biopsy, removes the abnormal areas.
LEEP or Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure. The abnormal cells are removed with an electrical current.
The goal is to remove all the abnormal cells and thus remove most or all of the cells with HPV.