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HPV in Women: How It Can Affect Females

Fact Checked

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Story at-a-glance -

  • It was found that HPV rates are significantly higher in men than women. Even so, this should not mean that women can rest easy when it comes to this STI
  • In women, HPV can be passed on either through vaginal, anal or oral intercourse
  • Having the HPV virus will not affect your chance of becoming pregnant, although if you have a high-risk HPV infection, the cancerous cells that develop in your cervix may have an effect on your fertility

Data from 2013-2014 (most recent years available) showed that HPV rates are significantly higher in men than women. According to researchers, 42.5% of U.S. adults ages 18 to 59 are infected with some form of genital HPV. This infection was found in 45.2% of men, while only 39.9% of women had HPV.1,2

Even so, this should not mean that women can rest easy when it comes to this STI. Here’s what women should know about this common health problem.

Basic Facts About HPV Infection

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an infection that infects the cell lining body cavities (mucous membranes) and skin of the affected individual. Unlike other STIs, it is not passed on through body fluids — rather, it spreads through direct, close skin-to-skin contact, typically during sexual intercourse. While sexual intimacy is not the only way to get HPV,3 it is the primary mode of infection for sexually active people. In women, HPV can be passed on either through vaginal, anal or oral intercourse.  

But whether in men or women, HPV is actually a very common infection which is usually benign, and goes away on its own, often without you ever knowing you had it. It’s said to affect 8 in 10 people at some point in their lives.

Usually, HPV causes no symptoms at all and for most individuals, the infection clears itself within a couple of years. In others, though, the infection stays for a longer period and becomes persistent.4 Left untreated, these symptoms may develop into cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus or oropharynx, depending on which area of the body the lesions appear.5

Symptoms of HPV in Women

Warts are the most visible symptom of HPV, and these come in two types: common, or plantar warts, and genital warts. Common warts are those that appear on the arms, feet, hands and chest, and are typically noncancerous growths.6

As evidenced by its name, genital warts are those found in the genital regions. It’s said that HPV types 6 and 11 are responsible for 90% of genital warts. In women, genital warts usually grow inside the vagina, around the vaginal opening or vulva, on the cervix (the lower end of the uterus), inside or around the anal region and on the upper thighs.7

Genital warts vary in size — they can be large and noticeable, but sometimes, they may be too small to see. When you see them, though, they can be:8,9

  • Flat or raised
  • White or flesh-toned
  • Grow in clusters
  • Have a cauliflower-like appearance
  • Tender or itchy, and may cause discomfort

HPV and Cervical Lesions

One other visible symptom of a high-risk type of HPV infection that has not cleared on its own are lesions on your cervix. Although you can’t see the lesion, they may be observed by your physician or gynecologist during a Pap test. In this procedure, your doctor will insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina and scrape cells from your cervix.

The samples are then sent to a lab, where they are examined for abnormal cell changes and possible signs of cancer.10

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Can HPV Affect Women Who Are Pregnant?

Having the HPV virus will not affect your chance of becoming pregnant, although if you have a high-risk HPV infection, then the cancerous cells that develop in your cervix may have an effect on your fertility.11 There is no link found between HPV and having a miscarriage, premature birth or other pregnancy complications.

While there’s a very low risk of passing on the human papillomavirus to your unborn baby, if you are infected at the time of birth, it’s also possible to pass the infection to your baby during the birth process in something called vertical transmission.12 At least one study also notes that “vaccination prior to pregnancy is unlikely to be efficacious in preventing vertical transmission.”13

There are cases in which HPV types 6 and 11 can infect a baby at birth with a rare respiratory infection called juvenile onset recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (JOPRR).14 If you are an expectant mother and test positive for high-risk HPV types your physician will monitor your condition to check for changes in your cervical tissue.15

If you become pregnant and have HPV symptoms, such as genital warts, it’s possible for the warts to enlarge and multiply during the pregnancy. These can only be treated once the baby has been delivered. Genital warts that are too large may also block the birth canal and make vaginal delivery difficult. A rare, noncancerous growth in the baby’s larynx may also occur.16

Therefore, if you have HPV and want to conceive, make sure that you discuss your condition first with your doctor, so that you will be informed of any potential side effects and health repercussions.

MORE ABOUT HPV

HPV: Introduction

What Is HPV?

Oral HPV

How Is HPV Transmitted?

HPV Vaccine

HPV in Men

HPV in Women

HPV Types

HPV Causes

HPV Symptoms

HPV Warts

HPV Treatment

HPV Test

How to Get Rid of HPV

Living with HPV

Does HPV Go Away?

How Do You Get HPV?

Is HPV Curable?

Is HPV Contagious?

How Long Does HPV Last?

HPV FAQ

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