Understanding HPV: What Women Need to Know

Woman sitting in bed, grasping pillow in pain.
  • HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that usually causes mild cases of genital warts. Some HPV strains may also result in more serious conditions.

  • Leaving an HPV infection untreated can lead to a number of health complications for women, including an increased risk of developing cervical cancers and problems during pregnancy.

  • It’s important for women to go for regular cancer screenings and HPV tests to avoid complications or to get the necessary treatment as soon as possible.

What is HPV?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can be transmitted through vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

An HPV infection is usually mild and will likely cause genital warts to develop.

However, some strains of the virus can also contribute to the development of more serious diseases like HPV-related cancers — like cervical or oropharyngeal cancer.

What are the Symptoms of HPV in Women?

Most HPV infections will go unnoticed, as symptoms may not develop. Common symptoms that appear with a genital HPV infection are warts, abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, and unusual pelvic pain.

If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to speak to your doctor as soon as possible.

What are the Risk Factors for HPV in Women?

Leaving HPV untreated or failing to pick up on infection may lead to serious health complications for women. Understanding what the symptoms of HPV look like can help you avoid risky health issues.

Cervical cancer

The most common risk associated with HPV in women is the development of cervical cancer. This can happen if HPV spreads to and infects the reproductive system.

Women may also have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer if they leave an HPV infection untreated, prompting abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix.

Cervical cancer can be life-threatening if it’s not detected and treated early on. Having cervical cancer may also increase your risk of developing tumors in the head, neck, and throat.

Problems during pregnancy

If you contract HPV during pregnancy, it can cause a number of health concerns for you and your unborn baby.

The most common issue is that HPV can be passed from mother to the baby during childbirth. This can cause respiratory problems in the newborn.

Women who develop genital warts may also notice that the growths increase in size due to hormonal changes in pregnancy.

This can cause discomfort and bleeding during vaginal delivery and may require additional treatment before you can complete labor.

How Can Women Protect Themselves from HPV?

Although the only way to completely prevent STIs like HPV is abstaining from sex, this doesn’t always suit everyone’s lifestyle.

Instead, there are a few things women can do to reduce the risk of contracting HPV, including:

  • Vaccination: The HPV vaccine is a safe and effective way for people to protect themselves against the most common strains of the virus and prevent cervical cancer. It’s recommended that women between the ages of 9 and 26 get vaccinated against HPV.

  • Practicing safe sex and limiting partners: HPV is spread through sexual contact, so using a condom every time you have sex and limiting your partners can reduce your risk of getting HPV.

  • Regular cervical cancer screenings: Regular Pap and HPV tests can help detect abnormal cell changes in the cervix early before they develop into malignant tumors.

  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle: Healthy diet and lifestyle choices can support a strong immune system, which can help fight off HPV infections.

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What Should Women Expect During an HPV Test?

An HPV test is typically done during a cervical cancer screening, like a Pap smear and co-test. Here’s what you can expect during your appointment:

  1. Preparation: You may be asked to avoid sexual intercourse, using tampons, douching, or using vaginal medications for at least 48 hours before the test.

  2. Testing: During the test, you will lie on an exam table, and your health care provider will insert a speculum into your vagina to allow for better access to your cervix. They will then use a small brush or swab to collect cells from your cervix. This sample will be sent to a laboratory for testing. During the test, you may feel some pressure or discomfort during, but it is generally not painful.

  3. Results: You should receive the results of your HPV test within a few weeks. If the test is positive for HPV, your health care provider may recommend further testing, such as a colposcopy, to look for abnormal cell changes in your cervix.

Although these screenings may be uncomfortable, it’s important to undergo cervical cancer and HPV testing regularly.

Early detection of abnormal cells is key for seeking the right treatment and reducing the risk of fatalities.

When Should Women Seek Medical Attention for HPV?

If you’ve been infected with HPV or suspect that you’ve been exposed to the virus, it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

You should also make an appointment to see your doctor if you:

  • Receive abnormal Pap test results

  • Develop genital warts

  • Have any symptoms of cervical cancer like abnormal vaginal bleeding and chronic pelvic pain

  • You develop growths or sores on other parts of the body, like the mouth and throat

If you’ve already been diagnosed with HPV, it’s important to keep an eye on your symptoms to determine if they improve or worsen.

You should speak to your doctor immediately if your symptoms don’t get better so that you can discuss more aggressive treatment methods.

Where Can I Learn More About HPV and Other Diseases?

If you suspect that you have HPV and are concerned about any symptoms, you can speak to a board-certified physician or nurse practitioner from the comfort of your home.

Head over to LifeMD to schedule a telehealth appointment


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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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