HPV is a virus that can be transmitted through sexual intercourse as well as through skin contact. HPV stands for human papillomavirus. In most infected people, the virus causes no signs or symptoms. Some people with the virus will present with genital warts. The virus is also linked to cancers of the reproductive system and genitalia, including cervical cancer, vulvar cancer, vaginal cancer, penile cancer and anal cancer.
The virus has also been linked to a higher risk of heart disease in some recent studies. HPV has been found to be the cause of the majority of cervical cancer cases in women; hence it is essential that every sexually active adult learn about this virus.
It’s important to note that there are multiple strains of HPV. A person may acquire many different strains of it during their lifetime. HPV is most typically transmitted through sexual intercourse and related skin contact. Condoms are one way to lessen transmission of the disease, but use of a condom is not 100% effective. In some studies, condoms were found to be as much as 70% effective in lessening rates of HPV infection when used properly.
However, HPV can be embedded in the skin, outside the body, even on objects that are shared between sexual partners, such as sex toys or toiletries. Most alarmingly, some studies have found that some men even have HPV under their fingernails. Doctors who have studied HPV extensively have found that HPV can be found in many places on a man’s body, including the fingers, fingernails, mouth, anus, urethra, saliva, semen, blood, urine, scrotum and penis.
It’s critical to note that since HPV often causes no symptoms at all, so a person who isn’t aware they have it can very easily spread it around; therefore regular screening for HPV is important for both men and women. For women who are sexually active, regular Pap smear testing is important and strongly recommended. Even if a woman has received the vaccine, doctors still recommend regular pap smears.
Due to the ease of transmission for HPV, especially when compared to other sexually transmitted diseases, it is recommended that condoms be included in your sexual protection regimen, but they should not be your only option.
Women can lessen their chances of acquiring HPV by using condoms, and also being more selective with sexual partners. In addition, there are vaccines available that can protect from certain strains of HPV and these are now widely available. The vaccine is available for both men and women, however, since the risks of acquiring HPV are more dangerous for women, it is most often recommended for women.
The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) extols that the use of condoms may reduce the risk for HPV transmission and infection. However, the CDC is careful to acknowledge that condoms cover only a small part of the body and infection may happen on other parts of the skin as well.
Female condoms are also recommended and are generally thought to be more effective than male condoms since they cover and protect more skin. Some studies have also found that continued use of condoms during sexual activity can reduce the spread of the virus to other areas on the body.
Summary of HPV Protection Recommendations
Vaccine – The HPV vaccine, under the brand name Gardasil, has been shown to be effective against strains of HPV that cause cancer. There are two vaccines available for women, and another one for men. It is recommended that young boys and girls, as young as 11 be vaccinated. It’s important for the vaccine to be used before a person becomes sexually active for maximum effectiveness. Some vaccines may require more than one shot over a period of time to be effective.
Condoms – Condoms have been shown to reduce the transmission of HPV and are one of the recommended methods for protection of both partners, but especially women.
Partner Selection – By being more selective of sexual partners and maintaining a long lasting, monogamous relationship you will severely limit your exposure to the virus. This is especially true if both partners are very selective and monogamous.
Abstinence –As with pregnancy, HIV, herpes and many other sexually transmitted diseases, the only 100% effective way to prevent infection of HPV is to not have sex at all.