How to Treat Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Although there is no cure for human papillomavirus (HPV) once infection occurs, the condition usually resolves on its own within 18 to 24 months.

There are usually no long-term consequences associated with HPV. However, infection does come with risks. Learn more about HPV infection below.

Goals of HPV Treatment

Since there is no treatment available for overall HPV infection, treatment focuses on managing symptoms, such as genital warts, and monitoring for any signs of cancer. Of the approximately 150 HPV strains that have been identified, 14 are considered high-risk and are associated with cervical, anal and other cancers.

HPV Treatment Options Much depends on whether a person has one or more of the following characteristics:

  • asymptomatic infection
  • condyloma acuminatum
  • Abnormal cell changes (dysplasia) in the cervix, vagina, vulva, anus, penis, mouth, or throat

asymptomatic infection

When HPV infection is asymptomatic (asymptomatic), no specific treatment is recommended. These infections are usually found if a person’s sexual partner has genital warts.

Infections may also be detected during routine cervical cancer screening. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), women between the ages of 25 and 65 should receive an HPV test or a combined HPV test and a Pap test every five years, or a Pap test alone every three years.

Recommendations for colposcopy, treatment, or monitoring will be based on the patient’s risk of developing precancerous cells on the surface of the cervix, which is determined by a combination of current test results and past medical history.

While there are no specific recommendations or HPV testing for men, those considered high risk (ie men who have sex with men (MSM) who engage in anal sex) may receive an anal Pap smear for dysplasia. This is especially true for HIV-infected MSM.

If you are confirmed to have HPV but have no symptoms, the HPV vaccine may be recommended to protect you from the most common high-risk strains of HPV. Routine vaccinations are recommended for men and women before age 26, regardless of whether you have been exposed.

High-risk groups between the ages of 27 and 45 can also be vaccinated. Sexual partners should also consider getting vaccinated.

condyloma acuminatum

Although unsightly and uncomfortable, genital warts usually do not cause any major health risks. Most are caused by two low-risk strains of the virus, called HPV 6 and HPV 11, which account for about 90 percent of all genital wart outbreaks.

Some genital warts may go away on their own, usually within a year or two. Others may need treatment at home with topical creams prescribed by a doctor.

Other treatments for genital warts include:

  • Cryotherapy (freezing warts with liquid nitrogen)
  • Electrocautery (burning warts with electricity)
  • Operation
  • Laser Treatment
  • Trichloroacetic acid (applied topically to gradually remove warts)

Genital warts should not be considered normal, and you should not treat them at home without seeing a doctor first. While most warts will prove benign, others may require further investigation, especially if they are bleeding, inflamed, spreading, resistant to treatment, or have an atypical appearance.

Dysplasia

Infection with certain high-risk HPV strains can cause abnormal changes in genital or anal tissue. These changes are called dysplasia and can range in severity from mild (low-grade) to severe (high-grade).

While mild dysplasia usually resolves on its own, moderate to severe dysplasia can develop into an early-stage cancer called carcinoma in situ (CIS).

The diagnosis can be made by taking a biopsy and analyzing the tissue in a laboratory.

  • For people with mild dysplasia, doctors usually take a watch-and-wait approach and repeat the test within 12 months. If the results are normal, normal screening can be resumed. If not, further testing is required.
  • For patients with moderate to high-grade dysplasia, treatment includes removal of affected tissue using loop electrosurgical excision (LEEP), cone biopsy, cryotherapy, or other surgical techniques.

It is important to remember that dysplasia is not cancer. The tissue is removed simply to reduce the risk of dysplastic cells becoming tumors (cancerous).

Treatment for dysplasia (whether it’s the cervix, anus, penis, or larynx) only targets precancerous cell changes caused by HPV infection, not the infection itself. People diagnosed with dysplasia need to be closely monitored for recurrence. This is especially true if the HPV infection persists for more than two years.

Precautions

While an HPV infection can be distressing, it offers you the opportunity to catch a problem before it becomes serious or even life-threatening.

Overall, there are few complications in the treatment of HPV-related disease.

Many treatments are covered at least in part by health insurance. Patient assistance and co-payment programs are available to help pay for vaccinations.

Women who require more frequent treatment and biopsies may be at increased risk of having a premature or low-birth-weight baby. However, on their own, these treatments do not directly affect a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant. Also, HPV is rarely passed from mother to baby during pregnancy.

In the event of a cancer diagnosis, remember that early treatment will give you the best chance of the best outcome. When you’re dealing with an HPV diagnosis, be sure to tell your loved ones about prevention strategies that can help them stay healthy.

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