Each year, about 6.2 million men and women become infected with genital human papillomavirus (HPV) . About 40 types of sexually transmissible HPV exist. Certain types of HPV cause genital warts , while other types cause cervical cancer . Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a vaccine that protects against four types of HPV, two of which are commonly associated with cervical cancer. The vaccine is a promising breakthrough in cervical cancer prevention, but it will still leave women susceptible to many types of HPV. Condoms are often recommended to protect against sexually transmitted infections, but studies on the effectiveness of condoms against HPV have been limited.

In an article published in the June 22, 2006 issue of New England Journal of Medicine , researchers studied whether condoms protect women against HPV infection. They found that women whose partners used condoms 100% of the time were significantly less likely to be infected with HPV than women whose partners used condoms less than 5% of the time. They also found that as the frequency of condom use increased, the risk of HPV infection decreased.

About the Study

The researchers recruited 82 female college students, ages 18-22. The women all had sexual intercourse for the first time during the study period, or during the two weeks prior to enrollment. Every two weeks, each of the study subjects completed a Web-based diary specifying how many times they had vaginal intercourse, how often their partners had used condoms, and the number of new partners they had. In addition, the women had gynecologic exams every four months, during which cervical and vaginal cell samples were collected for HPV testing.

Women whose partners used condoms all of the time were 70% less likely, and women whose partners used condoms more than half of the time were 50% less likely, to be infected with HPV compared to women whose partners used condoms less than 5% of the time.

This study was limited by its reliance on the study subjects to accurately recall and report how often their partners had used condoms.

How Does This Affect You?

This study showed that condoms effectively protected young women against HPV infection. This is reassuring, since unlike other sexually transmitted infections (eg, HIV , chlamydia , and gonorrhea ), HPV is spread via skin to skin contact, possibly in areas unprotected by condoms.

These findings appear on the heels of the FDA’s approval of the HPV vaccine. There is little doubt that the new vaccine will protect many women from HPV infection, as well as cervical cancer. But condom use is still an important and necessary step for preventing HPV infection.

The new HPV vaccine will protect against four types of HPV, which together cause the majority of cervical cancers and genital warts. However, the vaccine will not protect against an additional 30+ types of HPV, some of which have also been associated with cervical cancer and genital warts. Only abstinence can guarantee that you won’t catch HPV. If you are sexually active, use a condom to protect against HPV, as well as many other sexually transmitted infections.