HPV is very widespread amongst the population. It is estimated that 80 percent of women will contract a strain of HPV in their lifetime. Most of these infections are silent, causing no visible symptoms or side effects within a host.
In about 90 percent of patients, a healthy immune system will typically develop an immune response to regress the virus within a period of 1 to 2 years, with most in fact regressing over the course of a few months.
However, a small number of people who contract an HPV infection may have symptoms or complications that range from low-risk visible papilloma’s on the skin to persistent chronic infections that may develop into precancerous or cancerous lesions.
Here, we outline a few of the most common symptoms of HPV, including potential side effects of HPV vaccination.
Typically, if HPV symptoms do develop, they will either cause visible warts on the surface of the skin or cause chronic infections that persist within the cell tissue and are only detected through clinical examination, like a pap smear.
The large variety of HPV strains gives rise to several different types of warts on the body surface, face, and genital areas. These warts can be classified into:
- Common warts: the common wart is most frequently caused by HPV-2. These warts usually present with an irregular shaped rough nodule that shows up in multiples.
- Plane warts: mostly caused by HPV-3, 10, or 28. They cause small and less rough, flesh-colored, or lightly pigmented lesions. Usually on the hands or face. Plane warts have an unusual characteristic in that they can spontaneously regress and cause swelling and a rash at the surface of the skin.
- Plantar warts: usually found in 10-14-year-olds. They are contracted through barefoot activity and are found on the bottom of the feet. Plantar warts are typically caused by HPV 1 and 2.
- Genital warts: are most frequently caused by HPV 6 and 11. They are renowned for their resilience and ability to continually come back, as well as being both painful and irritating.
Cancerous or Precancerous Changes in the Cells of the Cervix
Only a few of the over 180 different strains of HPV are associated with increased cancer risk.
HPV that causes cervical, anal, or oral cancer is typically caused by a few high-risk strains of HPV that infiltrate the epithelial cells and have developed special mechanisms to evade the immune system.
There are typically no symptoms that HPV is developing into cancer until several years of cell proliferation and development. HPV that has progressed to a stage of cervical cancer may present as symptoms of abnormal vaginal bleeding.
The fact that it takes many years for HPV to develop into cancer is both a positive and a negative for us because it gives us time to detect the virus at an early stage in development before it has progressed into cancer and take action.
It is negative because having no symptoms can prevent some people from being proactive about their health, allowing the situation to progress to a more serious state. Typically, Pap screening should be done every three years from the age of 21 to 65 to screen for these abnormalities.
The HPV Vaccine and Potential Side Effects
Today, we have a vaccine offered as a preventative measure against high and low risk HPV strains, primarily to protect women against cervical cancer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the HPV vaccine for routine vaccination at age 11 or 12 years. The vaccine may be started as early as age nine.
Females aged 13 to 26 and males aged 13 to 21 are recommended to receive the vaccine. The vaccine is only recommended past the age of 26 for gay, bisexual, transgender, and those who have chronically weakened immune systems.
Gardasil is the most commonly used vaccination, protecting against the two strains of HPV that cause genital warts, and the two strains that are the most high-risk HPV strains, commonly known to cause cancer, such as cervical cancer.
Two doses of the vaccine should be given, the second being 6 to 12 months after the first. If less than 6 months apart, the recipient is of a weakened immune system or is past the age of 15, three doses are required to ensure the vaccination is effective.
It is important to keep in mind that the vaccination does not protect you against all HPV strains, just the most high-risk, so routine screening is still recommended.
Side Effects of Vaccination
Side effects of the HPV vaccine may include:
- Injection site irritations such as pain, redness, or swelling
- Systemic reactions such as nausea, muscle pain, malaise, and dizziness
The vaccination is quite safe; different types of the vaccine having been studied in almost 75,000 individuals.
These side effects are not commonly experienced, and for most people, it is definitely worth the risk to receive the vaccine than forgo it because of potential mild and temporary side effects.