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What is HPV?

What You Need to Know About HPV, HPV Symptoms, and How to Prevent It


Updated May 16, 2014

You have heard about HPV in magazines, newspapers, even on television. Since the 2006 FDA approval of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, HPV has gone from the little known condition to a household name.

What is HPV?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is sexually transmitted virus. There are currently over one hundred known strains of HPV. About thirty of these strains affect both male and female genitalia, causing conditions like genital warts and more seriously, cancer.

Although HPV is responsible for both genital warts and cervical cancer in women, they are caused by different strains of the virus. So, if you have genital warts, you are not at risk of developing cervical cancer because of them. If you have a type of HPV that make you at high risk for cervical cancer, then genital warts will not appear because of it.

How Do You Get HPV?

HPV is spread through sexual skin-to-skin contact. This means that penetration is not required to contract the virus. Vaginal and anal intercourse are also methods of HPV transmission. You can contract HPV from having oral sex, however it is less common.

What are the Symptoms of HPV?

There are rarely symptoms of an HPV infection. Genital warts are a symptom of the type of HPV that causes genital warts, however a person can be infected for years before the warts appear. A person can be infected and never have genital warts appear.

Women who are infected with a strain of HPV that is linked to cervical cancer do not usually experience any symptoms. Because there are no symptoms, a regular Pap smear is essential for detecting any abnormal cervical changes caused by HPV.

How to Prevent HPV?

HPV is a very common virus. It is estimated that over twenty million Americans are infected with HPV, making it the most common sexually transmitted disease. The only guaranteed means of preventing HPV is through absolute abstinence from all sexual contact; however this is unrealistic for most adults.

HPV is difficult to prevent because no penetration is needed to transmit the virus. Studies show that condoms do provide some protection against HPV, but because parts of the genitalia remain exposed during condom use, there is still a risk of transmission.

The HPV vaccine is also a method of preventing HPV. The FDA approved vaccine, Gardasil, has been proven effective against four strains of HPV known to cause cervical cancer and genital warts in women. Research is being done to determine the effectiveness of the vaccine in men.

Getting vaccinated against HPV, limiting the amount of sexual partners you have in your lifetime, and using a condom each time you have sex are all excellent ways to reduce your risk of contracting HPV.
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