HPV is said to be the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. But there are a lot of people – young and old – who do not know much about it. Learning more about this virus is a good way to prevent it.
HPV stands for human papillomavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women contract it at some point in their lives. HPV is not the same as herpes or HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS.
There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some types produce warts like plantar warts and common hand warts. About 40 types of HPV can infect nearly all parts of the genital area such as the vulva, vagina, cervix, rectum and penis. It can also cause genital warts. Other HPV types infect the mouth and throat.
Most HPV infections have no harmful effect at all, but about 30 types can lead to different types of cancer. In women, cervix, vulva, vagina, and anus cancers can result. In men, it can lead to cancers of the anus and penis.
HPV often leaves those infected with no symptoms or health problems. In 90 percent of cases, the body’s immune system naturally rids itself of HPV within 24 months. HPV infections that do not go away can stay undetected for years. That makes it impossible to determine exactly when someone became infected, how long they've been infected, or who passed the infection to them.
HPV is passed through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex. It may also be passed during oral sex and genital-to-genital contact. HPV can be passed on between straight and same-sex partners, even when the infected partner has no signs or symptoms.
There are several ways people can reduce their chances of becoming infected with HPV. Condoms are one way. To be most effective, they should be used with every sex act, from start to finish. Condoms may also lower the risk of developing HPV-related diseases, such as genital warts and cervical cancer. But condoms do not fully protect against the virus as it can infect areas not covered by a condom.
Vaccines can protect males and females against some of the most common types of HPV.