If you're sexually active, then you've likely had HPV at some point. The Human Papillomavirus is incredibly common and not usually something you have to worry about, since any symptoms that occur often go away on their own. But, as with most things health-related, there can be complications. If you experience any signs of HPV, it's a good idea to talk with your doctor.
He or she can help you deal with any symptoms you're having (like pesky genital warts). But it's also important to monitor yourself for high-risk strains of HPV, as they can occasionally lead to cancer of the cervix, mouth, penis, and other areas involved during sexual activity. "The strains that can lead to cervical cancer can be detected in women via a pap smear, which tests for the virus on the cervix and can be treated accordingly if a pap smear comes back 'abnormal,'" says sexual health educator Anne Hodder, in an email to Bustle.
Keep in mind, however, that an abnormal pap smear doesn't necessarily mean you have cancer, even though it's often labeled "pre-cancer." "I find that to be an unnecessarily alarming term," says Hodder. "Abnormal pap smears are quite common and, when they happen, there is a series of routine follow-up visits that doctors recommend to help identify whether there could be a cancer risk down the line and, if so, reduce that risk."
More often than not, HPV will either be completely undetected, or it'll annoy you for a while before clearing up on its own. Read on for some signs to look out for — bother worrying and not — so you'll be better able to look after your health.
1. You Have Bumps On Or Around Your Genitals
The most common sign of HPV are genital warts, which can be caused by some strains of the virus. As Hodder tells me, they will look like raised cauliflower-like bumps on the skin on and around your genitals. If they feel annoying, or affect your sex life, the warts can be treated by a doctor. So don't be afraid to ask.
2. You Have Bumps On Or Around Your Anus
As women's health expert Dr. Amir Marashi tells me, these bumps can appear in other places, too. Depending on the areas that were exposed during sex, you might notice them cropping up around your butt. While not cause for concern, definitely tell your gynecologist.
3. There Are Sores In Your Mouth
If you have oral HPV, you might experience some ulcer-like sores in your mouth, so keep an eye out for anything that feels or looks odd. "Most often the signs are subtle," registered dental hygienist Anastasia Turchetta tells Bustle. "HPV is a sneaky virus in that it will be likely located toward the base of your tongue, within the tonsillar pillars or soft palate."
4. Your Voice Is Hoarse
Because HPV ulcers can occur in your throat, you might experience hoarseness that doesn't go away, Turchetta tells me. This is especially true if the ulcers are located at the base of your tongue or in your throat, where they'll be all sorts of annoying.
5. You're Having Difficulty Swallowing
You might also experience difficulty swallowing, when or if the virus makes its way down your throat. (Which, of course, can happen after having oral sex with an infected partner.) This is thanks to it affecting your tonsils, Turchetta tells me. Definitely not something you should ignore.
6. There's A Lump In Your Neck
If you have oral HPV that's progressed into cancer, it can create a lump in your throat. "HPV takes years to develop and with its cellular changes, you most likely will not know that abnormal changes are happening until these symptoms appear." (Remember, though, that this is pretty rare.)
7. You Feel Itchy Down Below
If you have HPV, you might experience a scratchy or itchy feeling in your vaginal area, urologist Dr. David Shusterman, MD tells me. While warts are the most common — and often the only — sign to look out for, itchiness may be a tipoff, too.
8. You Have An Abnormal Pap Smear
As I mentioned above, HPV is often asymptomatic, so you might not even know you have it until you get a pap smear. (You get pap smears, right?) As David Kmak, M.D., OBGYN, a physician at Detroit Medical Center Hutzel Women's Hospital tells me, this test is often the only way to know that the virus has affected your cells. If that's the case, remember not to panic. There are plenty of treatments and options available.
9. You Have No Symptoms At All
Once again, HPV doesn't always lead to noticeable symptoms. "Like chlamydia and gonorrhea, oftentimes HPV doesn’t show any symptoms until it’s progressed to pre-cancer or cancer," says Dr. Michael Randell, an Atlanta-based OBGYN, in an email to Bustle. But do keep an eye out for genital warts, ulcers, and be sure to make annual appointments with your gynecologist.
While most people catch this virus at some point in their lives and live to tell the tale, it is possible to protect yourself and prevent it altogether. As Hodder tells me, using barrier methods that prevent bodily fluid transfer and skin-to-skin contact is the best way to keep yourself safe.
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