Human Papillomavirus (HPV) comprises a group of over 200 viruses that spread through vaginal/anal/oral intercourse.1 - and is therefore termed as a  Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD). An infected person can transmit the HPV virus to another through direct skin-to-skin contact.2 In this write-up, we’ll discuss the symptoms of HPV in women in detail along with their potential treatment options. Furthermore, we’ll also discuss some ways to prevent HPV infection.

So, let’s get started!

How Do Low-Risk And High-Risk HPV Affect Women?

Most women do not experience any HPV symptoms - as for  90 percent of them infected with HPV, the virus clears up from the body on its own within two years.3 However, ignoring the symptoms of HPV  can prove to be a potential health risk for women. 

Here’s a quick look at  the symptoms caused by the different strains of HPV:

  1. Low-risk HPV strains: This category includes genotypes 6, 11, 42, 43, and 44. 4 A low-risk HPV infection may result in lumps, warts and itching. Warts can appear in a single form or in clusters (similar to cauliflower shape) around the vulva. 
  2. High-risk HPV strains: This category includes strains 16, 18, 31, 33, 34, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 73, 82 and 97. High-risk HPVs are often symptomless in women. 5 6 However, high-risk HPVs (primarily HPV18 and HPV16) are often detected via the presence of precancerous cells, which also helps with early cervical cancer detection. Other high-risk HPV-related diseases include oropharyngeal-, anal-, vaginal-, and vulvar- cancer. About 90% of anal cancers and almost all cases of cervical cancer in women are caused due to HPV infection.7 

Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms related to -

  • Cervical cancer (often caused by high-risk HPVs), and 
  • Warts (caused by low-risk HPVs)

Cervical Cancer Symptoms In Women

Cervical cancer is the 4th most common cancer in women.8 It is known to occur in the cells of the cervix (the connecting part between a woman’s womb and vagina). 

Symptoms of cervical cancer may not occur in its early stages; however, you may experience discomforts and symptoms in its advanced stages such as-

  • Vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse, between periods or even after menopause 
  • Pelvic pain followed by a heavy, watery & bloody vaginal discharge that may also have a foul odour.9

Regular screening for high-risk HPVs will help mitigate the risk of developing the disease. Thus, it is crucial to watch out for symptoms of cervical cancer and consult a doctor for treatment options accordingly.

Warts - Symptoms Of Low-Risk HPV In Women

Here are the different types of warts which may appear as symptoms of HPV in women.

  • Common warts are usually seen on the hands and fingers as raised bumps with rough edges. Sometimes, these may bleed or can be painful. 
  • Genital warts appear when HPV infect cells in the vagina, near the vulva or anus, which may often cause itching and soreness. 
  • Flat warts are raised but flat-topped bumps that mostly appear on the legs.
  • Plantar warts grow in uncommon places, such as the bottom of the feet (near the heel or ball region). 10

Is There Any Treatment For HPV-Related Symptoms?

Fortunately, you have various options to treat HPV-related symptoms. However, there’s no treatment found to combat the virus in itself. 

Let us have a look at the options available for treating HPV-related symptoms:

  1. Genital warts often go away with doctors' prescribed methods, which may include ointments, surgical removal or laser treatment. Other options for hard-to-treat warts are using chemical peels (salicylic acid, glycolic acid, etc.).11 12 If left untreated for long, some warts may go away on their own but others may stay the same or grow in size or number.
  2. Cervical precancerous cells caused by HPV can also be treated. But, it’s important to diagnose it early with routine Pap tests and follow-ups with doctors. 
  3. Similarly, other HPV-related cancers are also treatable when diagnosed early.13

How Do You Prevent HPV Infection?

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends regular HPV testing for women (30 years & above) every 5-10 years.14 It assists in the early detection and cure of the infection (if any). This way, you’ll also prevent HPV from spreading to others.

Other simple yet effective measures to prevent an HPV infection include:

  • Preventive HPV vaccines for vaginal, cervical, anal and vulvar cancers.15
  • Using condoms during intercourse to prevent the spread of HPV infection among sexual partners.
  • Avoiding intimate contact with the HPV-infected person to curb the spread of infection.
  • Regular HPV DNA tests for women to detect any severe risk early on.

How Can You Detect HPV Infection?

Some of the symptoms of HPV in women, like genital warts, fail to respond to medical treatment and often recur. This could be due to repeated sexual or direct contact to infected skin or the long-incubation period of HPV (up to six months).15 16 17  Doctors often examine and detect warts and further confirm the presence of HPV infection through diagnostic tests.

As a convenient option, you can also choose “LifeCell’s at-home self-collection HPV Test - Female kit” to detect the infection from the comfort of your home. Moreover, you can also consult our health expert after receiving the results - which is ideally within two days of sample submission. Here’s what the test tells you about:

  • Presence of major high-risk HPV strains (HPV 16, 18 & 45)
  • Risk of infection from other high-risk HPV strains (HPV 26, 30, 31, 33, 34, 35, 39, 51, 52, 53, 56, 58, 59, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 73, 82, 97)

Note - For positive reports, we will only specify the exact HPV strain for Major High Risk HPV (i.e. HPV 16, 18 & 45). However, for other high risk HPV, we will not specify the HPV strain amongst HPV 26, 30, 31, 33, 34, 35, 39, 51, 52, 53, 56, 58, 59, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 73, 82, 97. 

Summing Up!

An HPV DNA test is highly recommended for sexually active women because studies suggest that they are highly prone to HPV infections, even if they are in a monogamous relation with a single partner.18 Symptoms of HPV in women might not be visible immediately, but they may appear years after sexual intercourse with someone having the infection. This makes it difficult to understand when the virus was exactly acquired. 

Therefore, it is always safer to get screened for HPV early on so as to detect an infection at its initial stage and find a possible treatment at the earliest. This will prevent high-risk HPV infections like cervical cancer from progressing into a full-blown disease.

References

  1. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-and-cancer#:~:text=HPV%2DRelated%20Research-,What%20is%20HPV%20(human%20papillomavirus)%3F,HPVs%20mostly%20cause%20no%20disease.  
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441884/ 
  3. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/human-papillomavirus-hpv/hpv-5-things-all-women-should-know  
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC145302/#:~:text=Low%2Drisk%20HPV%20types%20include,66%2C%2068%2C%20and%2070.     
  5. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/genital-warts/symptoms-causes/syc-20355234  
  6. https://medlineplus.gov/hpv.html 
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441884/  
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441884/  
  9. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cervical-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20352501#:~:text=Signs%20and%20symptoms%20of%20more,pain%20or%20pain%20during%20intercourse 
  10. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hpv-infection/symptoms-causes/syc-20351596 
  11. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/warts-treatment 
  12. https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm#:~:text=There%20is%20no%20treatment%20for,grow%20in%20size%20or%20number 
  13. https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm#:~:text=There%20is%20no%20treatment%20for,grow%20in%20size%20or%20number 
  14. https://www.who.int/europe/news/item/11-09-2021-who-recommends-dna-testing-as-a-first-choice-screening-method-for-cervical-cancer-prevention#:~:text=For%20the%20general%20population%20of%20women%2C%20HPV%2DDNA%20detection%20is,screening%20every%203%E2%80%935%20years
  15. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2013/10/protect-yourself-against-hpv  
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441884/#:~:text=A%20large%20number%20of%20cases,and%20adding%20isotretinoin%20can%20help.  
  17. https://hpv.md/natural-history/  
  18. https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm#:~:text=If%20you%20are%20sexually%20active,when%20you%20first%20got%20it.  

References