Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common sexually transmitted infection. There are many types of HPV, which produce a variety of symptoms, including genital warts, cervical dysplasia, and cervical cancer. HPV can take years to show signs in the body, so even if you haven’t been sexually active in a long time, you could have it. Having medical check-ups with Pap smears on a regular basis is important.

Symptoms

Because HPV can be in your system for a long time, you may not have any symptoms. But you might notice the following:

  • unusual growths or warts on or around your vagina (may look like cauliflower)
  • itching, pain, bleeding, or spotting between periods
  • unusual vaginal discharge

Treatment

HPV treatment varies depending on the type and symptoms.

Genital warts can be treated with a topical cream or liquid nitrogen. If you think you might be pregnant, tell your care provider, because some treatments shouldn’t be used during pregnancy. Though genital warts sometimes disappear on their own, the virus stays in the body and can still be transmitted to sexual partners.

If you have cervical dysplasia, a follow-up test will indicate what needs to be treated. Removal of abnormal cells is usually done through one of the following:

  • cryosurgery: liquid nitrogen is applied to the area to freeze the cells, which then die.
  • laser treatment: a laser light beam removes abnormal tissue.
  • loop electrosurgical excision procedure: a fine wire charged with an electrical current removes the tissue.
  • cone biopsy: a cone-shaped cut removes the abnormal tissue.

If the condition has progressed to cervical cancer, surgery might be needed.

Prevention

HPV is easily transmitted, so protect yourself:

  • Practise safer sex: use condoms, gloves, and dental dams
  • Get regular Pap smears