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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an infection that is passed between people through skin-to-skin contact. There are more than 100 varieties of HPV, but most emphasis is given to the 40 varieties that affect the genitals, mouth, or throat and that are passed through sexual contact.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC), HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection that affects both men and women. It’s so common that most sexually active people will get some variety of it at some point, even if they have few sexual partners (CDC).
Most people get HPV through direct sexual contact or oral sex. Since HPV is a skin-to-skin infection, intercourse isn’t required to contract the infection. In rare cases, an infected mother can infect her baby during delivery.
According to the CDC, 90 percent of infections go away on their own without any sign of symptoms or health problems (CDC). This means that infected people may unknowingly pass HPV to sexual partners.
For the remaining 10 percent, the virus doesn’t go away and can cause serious health problems. These include genital warts and warts in the throat (known as recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, or RRP). HPV can also cause cervical cancer and other cancers of the genitals, head, neck, and throat.
The types of HPV that cause warts are different from the types that cause cancer. As such, having genital warts caused by HPV does not mean that you will develop cancer.
Cancers caused by HPV often don’t show symptoms until the cancer is in later stages of growth. Regular screenings can help diagnose HPV-related health problems earlier. This can improve outlook and increase chances of survival.
There is currently no simple test to determine whether a person has HPV. Regular Pap tests (Pap smears) help to identify abnormal cells in women. These can signal cervical cancer or other HPV related problems.
If you have new warts appear, contact your doctor for an assessment.
Since HPV cannot be diagnosed, there is no treatment for it. Most cases will go away on their own. For HPV-related health issues, like warts and cancer, treatment will be targeted to the specific issue.
To treat genital warts, contact your doctor. Note that getting rid of the physical warts does not treat the virus itself.
Anyone who has had sexual intercourse is at risk for HPV infection. It’s impossible to know who will develop health problems from HPV, but people with weakened immune systems may be more at risk.
The easiest ways to prevent HPV are to use condoms and to limit sexual partners. In addition, the CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for boys and girls aged 11 or 12. Women and men can get vaccinated until age 26. The vaccine is said to protect against the types of HPV associated with cancer and can also prevent some types that cause warts.
To prevent health problems associated with HPV, be sure to get regular health checkups, screenings, and Pap smears.
Written by: Amber Erickson Gabbey
Medically reviewed on: Aug 26, 2013: George Krucik, MD, MBA
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