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How to Prevent and Reduce Your Risk of HPV

Why You Should Worry About HPV

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Updated July 30, 2008

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted virus that is associated with genital warts and several types of cancer, such as:
More studies are being done to determine HPV's role in the development of other types of cancer.

HPV is spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact -- no penile penetration or exchange of bodily fluids are needed to contract the virus. The virus is extremely common and it is estimated that more than 70% of the general population is infected with HPV. In most cases, HPV does not cause serious health consequences, like cancer. But for some people, HPV can lead to cancer.

How to Prevent HPV

Currently, there are only two HPV prevention methods: abstinence and the HPV vaccine. There are other ways to help reduce your risk of developing HPV, and those methods are discussed below.

Abstinence. Not having any sexual contact is an absolute way to prevent HPV. For most adults, complete abstinence is unrealistic, so other means of prevention and risk reduction should be followed.

HPV Vaccine. Aside from abstinence, the HPV vaccine is another effective means of preventing HPV. Although it doesn't protect against all strains of HPV, it does provide protection against the four strains of HPV that are most commonly associated with cervical cancer and genital warts.

The FDA approved the use of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, in 2006. The target age for the vaccine is age 11 through 26, but can be given as early as 9 years of age. The goal is to vaccinate girls before they become sexually active and become exposed to HPV. It protects against two strains that are known to cause cervical cancer in women and two strains that are responsible for genital warts.

How to Reduce Your Risk Of HPV

Practice Safe Sex with a Condom. It is still unclear how good condoms are at decreasing the transmission of HPV, but studies show that women whose partner wore a condom every time they engaged in sexual intercourse cut their risk of developing HPV by about 70%. However, it's important to keep in mind that HPV is not transmitted via the exchange of bodily fluids. It is transmitted though sexual skin-to-skin contact. For example, during intercourse the penis is covered by the condom, leaving other areas of the genitals exposed. These exposed areas may come in contact with the vagina, thus possibly transmitting the virus. And, of course, it's not just heterosexual contact that can transmit the virus -- it's any type of sexual contact.

Limit the Number of Sexual Partners You Have. Limiting the number of sexual partners you have during your lifetime may decrease your risk of contracting HPV. Being in a monogamous, long-term relationship with someone also will greatly reduce your risk of contracting different strains of the virus. In fact, in a monogamous relationship where one or both partners are infected with HPV, the couple helps lower the possibility of becoming infected with another strain of the virus.

Sources:

Winer, Ph.D., Rachel, James P. Hughes, Ph.D., Qinghua Feng, Ph.D., Sandra O'Reilly, B.S., Nancy B. Kiviat, M.D., King K. Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., and Laura A. Koutsky, Ph.D.. "Condom Use and the Risk of Genital Human Papillomavirus Infection in Young Women." New England Journal of Medicine 354:2645-265422 Jun 2006. Accessed 12 Sept 2007.

"HPV Vaccine Q and A." National Immunization Program. 07 July 2006. Centers for Disease Control. Accessed 12 Sept 2007.

Centers for Disease and Prevention."Sexually Transmitted Disease Guidelines 2006." Sep 2006. Accessed 12 Sept 2007.

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