In most people with a human papillomavirus, or HPV, infection, their immune system attacks the virus and clears the infection, usually within one or two years. When the infection is not cleared, serious complications can develop. Dr. Patel, can you tell us about the potential complications of an HPV infection?
Definitely, Dr. Mayzik. There are over 150 strains, or types, of HPV, and only a portion of these cause a sexually transmitted infection. The types of HPV that cause an STI, called genital HPV types, are further categorized as low-risk or high-risk.
Low-risk genital HPV types are strains that tend to cause genital warts. If warts are not treated, they may go away on their own, stay with no change, or increase in size and number. Warts rarely turn into cancer and don't typically cause discomfort, but in some cases, they can cause increased vaginal discharge, genital itching, and vaginal bleeding during or after sex. They can also grow so large and numerous that they require treatment.
High-risk genital HPV types are strains that are linked to certain cancers in both men and women, most notably cervical cancer in women. Although infections caused by high-risk HPV types often clear on their own, a long-lasting infection with this type of HPV can cause cell changes that may eventually develop into cancer.
In addition to cervical cancer, high-risk HPV can cause:
- Anal cancer
- Some types of oral and throat cancer
- Vulvar cancer
- Vaginal cancer, and
- Penile cancer