According to the CDC, the human papilloma virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is so common now, that almost all sexually active men and women will encounter it at some point in their lives. But to be so wide spread, I often get a lot of questions from patients trying to understand this virus. It can be very tricky to understand!
HPV is different from other viruses like HIV and HSV (herpes). Firstly, there are so many different strains of HPV. Two of these strains (6 and 11) are common causes of genital warts, whereas others, most commonly types 16 and 18, may cause cervical cancer.
How is it spread? HPV is most commonly spread through anal or vaginal sex. However, it can be also be spread through oral sex. The risk of spreading HPV is highest when during genital penetration without using a condom; however, the virus can also be spread from genital-to-genital contact without penetration. For example, just having the genitals touch during acts of foreplay can possibly cause the spread of HPV.
What are the signs of HPV? Typically, there are no signs. HPV can only be seen visibly if a person has a genital wart. Therefore, HPV can be spread when an infected person has no signs or symptoms. Most people with HPV do not know they are infected and never develop symptoms or problems from it. Some people find out they have been exposed when they see genital warts. Women may find out they have HPV when they get an abnormal Pap smear during their cervical cancer screening.
Can it cause health problems? In the majority of healthy patients, HPV is able to go away on its own. However, in some cases, the HPV does not go away and can cause problems such as genital warts or cervical cancer. This is most likely when you come into contact with one of the high risk forms of HPV. HPV can also cause additional types of cancer such as cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus and the back of the throat. However, it is important to know that the types of HPV that cause genital warts are not the same types of HPV that can cause different forms of cancer.
How can I be tested for HPV? There is no one test to know your “HPV status.” Also, there is no approved HPV test to find HPV in the mouth or throat. Most women discover if they have had HPV exposure during their annual cervical cancer screening (pap smear with HPV testing).
How do I know who gave me HPV? It is hard, if not impossible, to know when you were originally infected because people with HPV can develop symptoms years after exposure.
How can I prevent HPV? Several steps can lower your risk for getting HPV: 1) Talk to your healthcare provider about getting vaccinated. These vaccines are safe and effective when given in the recommended age time frame, 2) Start getting screened for cervical cancer starting at age 21, and 3) Practice safe sex. If you are sexually active, use latex condoms every time you have sex and be in a mutually monogamous relationship (only have sex with someone who only has sex with you).
For more HPV information, talk to your local healthcare provider or search for up to date information from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov).