A virus can cause a lot of things. Strep throat, HIV, the common cold, to name a few. One virus that billions of people carry within them is HPV, or Human Papilloma Virus. You contract it through tiny breaks in your skin where it enters your blood stream. The viral particles then settle into your upper epithelial layers of skin where they replicate and cause a wart. There are hundreds of strains of HPV, and the most common places you find them are areas moist and warm, like a pool deck, locker room, or shower.
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How Can I Have HPV Without Warts?
First, let’s look in detail at what’s behind warts. HPV is a virus, which is different than bacteria. While they are both living things, bacteria are cellular organisms that can live inside or outside a living being. Viruses don’t have a cellular structure and require a living host in order to survive and replicate.
Here’s more details:
- Bacteria: These microscopic living organisms grow rapidly and have a cell wall. You can find them on anything from a doorknob to the inside of your intestines, and not all kinds are bad for you. To kill a bacteria, you need some good antibiotics. These target bacteria specifically and can kill them wherever they are in your body.
HPV infects millions of new people every year.
- Virus: A virus depends on a living host and requires something called antibodies to kill it. Antibodies are tiny particles that have a receptor on them that attaches to one certain virus specifically, disabling and destroying it. Your body will produce these antibodies once a virus is identified inside you, then send them out to overtake and kill the virus off completely. However, there are some viruses that your body just can’t seem to make antibodies for. While science has created the antibodies itself for various viruses like polio and measles, there are some that neither science nor the human body can figure out how to kill. One of these examples is HPV.
Positive for HPV, negative for warts
When HPV settles into your epithelial cells, it doesn’t necessarily get to work right away. It can lay inactive for periods of time, sitting there doing nothing, not letting anyone know it’s there. Then one day out of the blue, the virus decides to turn on, replicating itself and producing wart cells until it gets large enough to stick out from the skin as a mass we call a wart.
A virus works like an invader. It injects itself within a host cell, which in the case of HPV, is your skin’s epithelial cells. Once inside the cell, it uses that cell’s energy to survive and may remain active for long periods of time before it suddenly decides to reproduce. A virus can self-replicate, meaning that it doesn’t need a partner or another virus to reproduce. Instead, it makes copies of itself over and over again until there are countless viral particles.
So although you have the HPV virus within you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a wart will be present. It may take a while to show up.
Genital Warts And HPV
Some facts about genital warts include:
- They are spread primarily through sexual contact.
- They only appear on the genitals, with the exception being that they can show up in the throat or mouth after oral sex with someone infected with genital warts.
- The strain of HPV that causes them is different than the one that gives you common warts you might find on your hand, foot, or face.
- They have a cauliflower-like surface.
One danger of genital warts is that they are a major precursor to cervical cancer, mouth and throat cancer, and penile cancer. Something interesting is that the HPV strains that cause cells to become cancerous don’t necessarily cause warts. Meaning that you can get cancer without having genital warts show up.
But how can you know if you have HPV if you don’t have any warts to show for it? Well, the answer is easy. There’s more than one type of test available just for that purpose.
- Pap smear: This test takes a small sample of epithelial cells from the cervix. Using a long cotton swab, your doctor will run it over your cervix, taking some basic skin cells with it, then send it off to a lab for testing. If any of the cells look irregular, then the pap smear will most likely be repeated, along with more investigation. Regular pap smears are the most effective way to prevent and treat cervical cancer, as early detection almost always makes the cancer very treatable.
- Blood test: A regular blood test can tell if there’s HPV present in your body, along with what strain you’re dealing with. A medical professional will stick a needle into one of your small veins, most likely the inside of your elbow, and take out a small amount of blood, then send it out for testing.
Is There A Cure?
The unfortunate answer is that, no, there’s isn’t yet a cure for HPV. However, warts are very treatable. Not only can a doctor kill a wart in their office for you, there’s also several at-home wart kits you can try, from salicylic acid to freezing agents.
Some drugs or therapies work with the immune system to try and de-activate HPV permanently or at least long-term. Although these therapies can prevent warts from coming back, they don’t actually eradicate the HPV itself from your body.
Most of the time, if you have HPV, you’ll end up with a wart at some point in your life. If this happens, you may want treatment, which can range from medical procedures like surgical excision, to natural remedies like apple cider vinegar. For more information on how to get rid of HPV warts, go here.
Prevention is key
There are measures you can take to make sure you don’t get HPV in the first place. A vaccine called Gardasil is available for boys and girls aged 9-26 that protects against the strains of HPV that cause genital warts. The vaccine won’t kill HPV if it’s already inside you, but will only protect someone who hasn’t been infected yet. Also, remember that Gardasil won’t prevent HPV that causes the common wart, only genital warts.
Although there’s a vaccine to help prevent genital warts, it won’t stop you from getting a sexually transmitted infection. HIV, Chlamydia, and Herpes are just a few of the infections you can get through unprotected sex. Always use a condom and be extremely careful with the partners you choose.
Other measures you can take to keep yourself free of HPV include:
- Wearing shoes in the locker room, public showers, and pool decks.
- Avoiding sexual contact with anyone who has genital warts, including oral sex.
So just because you don’t have a wart, it doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have HPV. You might be one of the lucky ones who has the virus but never gets an actual wart, or you may be someone who seems to always have a wart on them. Regardless, HPV is a pesky virus. Thankfully, it’s one we’ve figured out how to deal with.