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HPV Treatment

HPV treatment varies depending on the type of HPV the patient is afflicted with. Learn about the different types of HPV treatments.

Surgical removal of warts is one way to treat a certain type of HPV. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Surgical removal of warts is one way to treat a certain type of HPV.

There is no one answer for the question, "What is HPV treatment." HPV treatment varies depending on what type of human papilloma virus (HPV) a person contracts. Most people who have HPV are unaware of it and do not experience noticeable symptoms. In some cases, the immune system clears the infection on its own without medical intervention. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV affects at least 50 percent of sexually active individuals and is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Roughly 70 percent of HPV infections go away within one year and 90 percent within two years. Even so, the virus should be monitored closely, as HPV can lead to cervical cancer and other dangerous complications.

HPV is transmitted by genital contact during vaginal or anal intercourse. People who contract low-risk types of HPV may end up with warts on the hands, feet and, most commonly, the genital area. Patients who contract high-risk types of HPV may experience changes to cells in their bodies which, if left untreated, could lead to cancer. Although there is no treatment for the actual virus, the symptoms of HPV, including warts and cancers, can be treated.

Defining HPV

Human papilloma viruses are a group of over 100 related viruses that live in squamous epithelial cells in the body. These cells are flat, thin and located on the vulva, anus, vagina, head of the penis, cervix, mouth, throat and surface of the skin. Papillomas are non-cancerous tumors, more commonly known as warts. Of the more than 100 strains of HPV, 60 strains cause warts on nongenital skin like the hands and feet, while the other 40 strains are mucosal, preferring the moist squamous cells found in the genital and anal areas of the body.

Types of HPV

HPV types are categorized as either low-risk or high-risk. The low-risk types of HPV often cause warts to develop on the anus and genitals in both men and women, but they do not lead to cancer. High-risk HPV can cause cell abnormalities, which can lead to cancer in men and women. HPV has been linked with cervical cancer as well as cancers of the vagina, vulva, anus and penis.

Detection of HPV

Currently, there is no test to detect HPV infection in men. Men will not know they have HPV unless they have visible genital warts. Women can detect HPV either by the appearance of genital warts or through a Pap test, which is part of a routine gynecological exam. During a Pap test, cells are collected from the cervix and examined under a microscope for abnormalities. If abnormalities are noted, an HPV test is performed. The HPV test consists of laboratory analysis of the collected cells. According to the National Cancer Institute, the HPV test detects at least 13 of the high-risk HPV types linked to cervical cancer.

Treatment for Low-risk HPV Infections

Genital warts, caused by low-risk HPV infections, can be treated several ways. One "treatment" option is to leave warts untreated to see if they disappear on their own. Patients may also choose to apply prescribed medication to the warts. This medication is a solution, gel or cream applied to the affected areas. It is recommended that a health care professional apply the first dose of medication to show the patient proper technique. After that, patients can administer treatment themselves. Patients may also elect to undergo more invasive treatments performed by a doctor. Such treatments include cryotherapy, which involves freezing off warts through the application of liquid nitrogen; electrocautery, which burns off warts using an electrical current; surgical removal; laser therapy or application of certain forms of acid, which destroy the warts through chemical coagulation of proteins.

Treatment for other types of warts caused by HPV, such as plantar and flat warts, is similar to treatment used for genital warts. Salicylic acid, cyrotherapy, laser and surgical removal are used to treat warts beyond the genital area.

Patients should not attempt to treat genital warts with over-the-counter wart medication. A doctor will assist the patient in determining the proper treatment method based on the number and size of the warts, the patient's preference, cost of treatment and convenience. Also, while treatment may rid patients of the warts, it does not eliminate the HPV virus. It is still possible to transmit HPV to sexual partners even if the warts are gone.

Treatment for High-risk HPV Infections

HPV infections that are persistent and cause cell changes may eventually cause cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 99 percent of cervical cancer is related to HPV. Therefore, it is important to treat cell changes caused by HPV immediately once detected.

Abnormalities found in a Pap test are classified into different categories. The categories range from cells that look slightly abnormal and may need further testing, to cells that are clearly abnormal with a shape and size very different from the shape and size of normal cells. When the cells look slightly abnormal, further testing may be needed, which may include a colposcopy. This is a procedure in which the vagina and cervix are examined using a colposcope, which is a lighted magnifying instrument. During the procedure, doctors may perform a biopsy in which they remove a small piece of tissue from the affected area for further examination. Once testing is complete, there are several treatment options available to remove the abnormal cells, also referred to as dysplasia.

If the abnormalities are low-grade, they can be left alone and will likely resolve themselves. A follow up Pap test is performed to confirm that the problem is resolved. If the dysplasia is classified as high-grade, the cells can lead to cancer and must be treated. Cyrosurgery, a process in which cells are frozen off using liquid nitrogen, is one treatment option for cell changes caused by HPV. During this procedure, a doctor directs liquid nitrogen to the abnormal cells using a hollow instrument called a cryoprobe. After treatment, the frozen tissue thaws and the body absorbs it. Loop electrosurgical excision procedure, commonly referred to as LEEP, is another treatment method wherein the affected tissue is removed using a hot wire loop. The loop cuts away a thin layer of the surface cells, removing the abnormalities. After removing the tissue, a paste is applied to stop any bleeding. As with warts, electrocautery is also used to treat dysplasia. A health care provider guides an electrical current to burn off the affected tissue. Laser treatment works similarly, using a laser to remove the tissue rather than an electrical current. In addition to these methods, traditional surgery may be used to remove the cells affected by HPV.

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