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Sexually Transmitted Disease Awareness Month

HPV Sometimes Hard to Detect

April 20, 1998

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the United States, affecting an estimated 24 million to 40 million people. But because HPV is common and often symptomless, it tends to go undetected and untreated. Here's a primer.

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Question: What is human papillomavirus?

Answer: The name of a group of viruses that includes more than 80 types. Certain types cause warts on the hands or feet. The types that are usually sexually transmitted can cause warts in areas around the genitals or anus or may cause no symptoms at all.

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Q: What are the symptoms of HPV?

A: Some HPV types cause genital warts, while others are closely linked with cervical cancer, as well as cancers of the penis and anus. Most people infected with genital HPV have no symptoms and are unaware of the infection.

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Q: How is HPV spread?

A: Genital HPV is spread by direct, skin-to-skin contact, usually during sexual activity. Warts may appear within several weeks after sexual contact with an infected person. Warts may also take several months to appear, or never appear.

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Q: Can HPV be cured?

A: Although there is no cure for genital HPV, in some cases the immune system seems to "clear" the virus from the body. However, it is unknown whether, in such cases, the virus remains at undetectable levels.

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Q: How can HPV be prevented?

A: As with all sexually transmitted diseases, the only completely effective means of prevention is abstinence. Condoms may provide some protection against genital warts. However, if the infected skin site lies outside the area covered by the condom, the virus can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact during sex. Spermicides are not proven to be an effective protection against HPV and genital warts.

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Q: Can a pregnant woman with HPV pass the infection to her baby?

A: Yes, it is possible. In rare cases, babies exposed to HPV can develop warts in the throat or serious respiratory problems. A pregnant woman should notify her health care provider if she or her partner has had HPV or genital warts.

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Q: What is the connection between HPV and cervical cancer?

A: Certain types of HPV--usually not the ones that cause genital warts--can cause cervical cancer. Studies have shown that HPV is found in almost all women with cervical cancer.

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Q: If a woman has HPV, will she get cervical cancer?

A: Only a small percentage of women with HPV has cervical cancer. Of the millions of women infected with HPV, only about 16,000 each year develop cervical cancer.

Source: American Social Health Assn.

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For a free brochure, "A Practical Guide for the Tongue-Tied: How to Talk With Your Health Care Provider About HPV and Other STDs," call ASHA through April 30 at (800) 677-4100.

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