Preventing Human Papillomavirus
Considering Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, it's important to know all the facts about this STD. Learn more in the helpful information that follows.
Human Papillomavirus Basics
The human papillomavirus (HPV) belongs to a family of more than 100 different virus strains, some of which cause warts on toes or fingers. Of these HPV types, about 30 viruses are spread through sexual contact and cause infections in the genital area, including genital warts (condyloma).
According to the CDC, about 20 million people in the United States are infected with HPV, and at least half of all sexually active men and women will have an HPV infection at some point in their lives. About 6.2 million Americans get a new genital HPV infection each year.
The vast majority of people will never know they are infected because the HPV infection will pass without causing any symptoms. A small group of people will develop genital warts, and an even smaller percentage will see HPV infection lead to precancerous tissue (dysplasia).
Although cases are rare, a pregnant woman can pass HPV to her baby during childbirth. The infant then is at risk for developing warts in the voice box or throat.
Everything in the genital area, from the skin of the penis and the anus to the vulva and the cervix, are fair game when it comes to HPV. The warts HPV causes are typically painless and appear as soft, raised, and sometimes cauliflower-shape lumps in the genital area. The discovery of precancerous tissue, however, signals a potentially deadly risk. Either way, the warts or questionable tissue should be removed.
There is a strong link between the dysplasia HPV causes and cervical cancer, making HPV infection of extreme importance for women. However, the strains of HPV that cause genital warts are not the ones that are associated with cancer so the absence of warts is not a "clean bill of health" when it comes to cervical or uterine cancer.
Although there is no cure for HPV, there is a new preventive vaccine. If you already have an HPV infection, a physician or surgeon should treat or remove infected tissue, and then you'll just have to wait for the infection to go away on its own.
Who's at Risk for HPV
Because they don't always use condoms, teenagers and young adults are most at risk, as are people who have multiple sexual partners. According to the CDC, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States.
Defensive Measures Against HPV
In June 2006, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first vaccine believed to prevent HPV-related cervical cancer, precancerous genital lesions, and genital warts. The vaccine, called Gardasil, is approved for girls and women ages 9 to 26 and is given as three injections during a six-month period.
The vaccine only works on certain strains of HPV and is not effective in preventing cervical cancer in women who are already infected by HPV.
Women should talk with their healthcare providers about this preventive vaccine but should not abandon other protective measures. One strategy is to either abstain from sexual contact altogether or form a monogamous sexual relationship with someone who is not infected with HPV. Although HPV infection can occur even if a condom is used, the good news is that condom use has been linked with a lower rate of cervical cancer.
You can take other steps to avoid contracting HPV, or at least cut your risk of developing HPV-related complications. These include:
- Put it out. If you smoke and become infected with HPV, your chance of developing dysplasia is significantly higher. Plus, nicotine is believed to increase a woman's risk for cervical cancer.
- Go drug-free. Using recreational drugs and drinking alcoholic beverages have been known to suppress the immune system; stay away from both to increase your chances of avoiding HPV.
Syphilis is another sexually transmitted disease that has symptoms that are easy to miss, especially in the early stages of the disease. Learn more about syphilis in the next section.