Odds are that you now have or have had a sexually transmitted disease but don’t know it. Genital human papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV, infects nearly every man and woman at some point during his or her lifetime.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 40 HPV types that can infect the genital areas of males and females. These HPV types can also infect the mouth and throat.
The reason most people who become infected with HPV don't know they have it is because most people don’t develop symptoms or health problems. In 90% of cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV naturally within two years. In the meantime though, you can innocently pass the virus to your partner. HPV may be detected fairly soon after exposure, or may not be found until many years later.
The virus is so common that having only a single lifetime partner does not assure protection. Most sexually active couples share HPV until the immune response suppresses the infection.
Monogamous partners are not likely to reinfect each other with the same virus multiple times. When HPV infection goes away, the immune system will remember that HPV type and keep a new infection of the same HPV type from occurring again. However, because there are many different types of HPV, becoming immune to one HPV type may not protect you from getting HPV again if exposed to another HPV type. Condoms offer some, but not complete protection from HPV and increasing numbers of partners increases the risk of getting HPV.
The ugly side of HPV is that certain types can cause genital warts in men and women, and although rare, these genital warts can develop in the throat, a condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis or RRP.
Other HPV types can cause cervical cancer. These types can also cause other, less common but serious cancers, including cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and head and neck (tongue, tonsils and throat).
It is important to note that the types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancer.