Ask the Doctor: How do people get HPV and what can be done to treat it?

While this is not directly a behavioral health question, it is the third time this week an HPV question has come up so it is important to address.  Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is actually a common family of viruses and most people will get an HPV infection at some point in their life.
Most HPV infections occur in skin tissues, often without any obvious symptoms, resolving on their own.  Certain HPV types cause common warts, such as those found on the hands or feet (plantar warts).
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 40 HPV types infect mucosal skin such as mouth, throat and genitals, and some of these can cause cancer in both men and women, such as cervical or penile cancers, or cancers of the throat or anus.
Around 79 million Americans have genital HPV infections, with about 14 million new infections a year, mostly in teens and young adults.  Over 19,000 women and 11,600 men are diagnosed with cancers due to HPV every year.
Skin to skin contact is how the virus is passed on.  Prevention is important.  If you have warts on your hands or feet, it is important to keep them covered, and avoid wart contact with skin, including your own!  Any skin to skin sexual contact can spread the virus so the use of barriers such as condoms helps prevent the spread of HPV.
The HPV vaccines are valuable protection against the cancers caused by the virus.  They are most effective when given before the age of 14 when the body’s immune response will be much more active than later in life.
While there is no specific treatment for HPV infection, there are treatment options.  Common skin warts can be treated with over the counter treatments, prescription creams, liquid nitrogen or electrical currents by a physician, or surgery.
Genital warts may also be addressed by a physician using similar treatments.  Routine gynecological exams help identify pre-cancer which is treated by a physician.  Routine physical exams can also find penile or anal cancers early.  Unfortunately, throat cancers are harder to detect early.
Make sure to have all recommended health check-ups and discuss any HPV concerns with your doctor.
Dr. Carmen McIntyre is the Chief Medical Officer at Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. If you have a question for Dr. McIntyre, please submit it to


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