DEAR DR. GOTT: I contracted the human papillomavirus (HPV) more than 30 years ago. The gynecologist who treated me then did not tell me I was contagious. I thought he cured me, as he did not tell me it was permanent.
What can you tell me about this disease? I know it can lead to cervical cancer. Why isn’t there a cure for this disorder? I know it is very common, so I suppose it is like the common cold.
I hope you can help me, since no one knows that I have this problem, not even my primary-care physician.
DEAR READER: You are correct that the cold and HPV are similar. Each is the result of viruses, and there are more than 100 types of HPV and hundreds of cold viruses. Neither has a cure, but fortunately, most of the viruses responsible do not cause serious complications. Colds and HPV are also extremely common. Some types of HPV may even resolve without treatment.
Unlike colds, most people never know they have a human-papillomavirus infection, since most do not cause symptoms or cause other health problems. About 20 million Americans are currently infected, and another 6 million become infected each year.
Some of the types of human papillomavirus can cause genital warts or cervical, vaginal or vulvar cancer. Most other types of HPV will be contracted and even passed on without the person ever knowing.
There is no cure, but there are treatments for genital warts and the various female cancers associated with HPV. Warts are often treated with medication to prevent or shorten breakouts. Removal of the warts may also be beneficial, but it is still possible to transmit the infection when symptom-free. The cancers are treated exactly the same as non-HPV-related cancers – radiation, chemotherapy and surgical removal of the affected organ(s) or tissue.
Practicing safe sex can reduce the risk of contracting HPV, but abstinence is best. Today, there is also a vaccine for girls and women ages 9 to 26 that may prevent the four types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts. It is not recommended for women over 26 and is thought to be most effective if given before sexual activity is begun.
Speak with your primary-care physician or gynecologist about your history with human papillomavirus. I cannot give more specific advice since you do not say how you came to be diagnosed. Was it by chance during a routine Pap smear? Or did you present with symptoms? By keeping this important medical history a secret, you may be harming yourself.