Approximately 6 million Americans become infected with the human papillomavirus each year. Know the facts about this sexually transmitted disease so you can protect yourself and others.
- TIP: Because there are so many strains of HPV, it's possible to become infected with more than 1 type.
- Step 1: Protect yourself. Females age 11 through 26 can get a vaccine that guards against strains most likely to cause cancer; one vaccine also protects against most genital warts. Males can also be vaccinated. Condoms help reduce your risk further. But the only way to prevent HPV infection altogether is abstinence or monogamous sex with an uninfected partner.
- FACT: At least 50 percent of sexually active men and women get HPV at some point in their lives.
- Step 2: Understand how you can get HPV. The virus is transmitted through vaginal, anal, and sometimes oral sex, it can also be passed during genital contact that doesn't involve penetration. Because most people don't have symptoms, many don't even know they have HPV when they pass it on. And a person can have the virus even if it's been years since they've had sex with an infected person.
- TIP: Genital warts do not cause cancer, and the types of HPV that causes warts are not the same as those that cause cancer.
- Step 3: Realize that if even if you have HPV, you probably won’t have any symptoms. The vast majority of HPV carriers show no signs of the virus, and in at least 90 percent of the cases, the immune system clears it out within 2 years. Some strains do cause genital warts, which is a clear sign you have HPV; left untreated, they may go away on their own, stay the same, or become larger. Ask your doctor about removal options.
- TIP: In rare cases, HPV can cause warts in the throat, a condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, or RRP.
- Step 4: Understand that some types of HPV can cause cervical cancer, and, less frequently, cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, tongue, tonsils, or throat. All women should have regular Pap tests to check for cervical cancer. Women should also consider having an HPV DNA test, which can detect HPV on the cervix. There is no routine screening test for other HPV-associated diseases; visit your doctor regularly for checkups.
- Step 5: Know what HPV is: it stands for "human papillomavirus," and according to the Centers for Disease Control, it's the most common sexually transmitted infection. There are more than 40 types of HPV that can infect the genitals, mouth, or throat.