HPV infection is a sexually transmitted disease caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). It is estimated to be the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, although rates vary widely, ranging from a conservative 14% to as much as 90%. Regardless, approximately 50% of sexually active adults will contract HPV at some point in their lives.
There are several vaccines available to prevent HPV in men and women. Each vaccine targets specific strains of the virus that cause the majority of genital warts or HPV related cancers. All are highly effective, but they are of little benefit to those who have already been exposed to certain types of the virus. Pap smears are also an effective means of early detection. Still, the best means for preventing the spread of HPV is to avoid exposure altogether. Abstinence from sex or monogamy with an uninfected partner is the most effective preventative technique, and knowing one’s own status and the status of one’s partner is important. The use of lubricated condoms can greatly reduce the risk of infection, although any skin-to-skin contact poses a risk. The use of spermicidal foams, creams or jellies can cause microscopic abrasions that facilitate transmission and should be avoided. If any warts appear on the body, refrain from sexual activity and get tested immediately. The likelihood if reinfection by the same type of HPV is low, due to the immune system’s response to the virus. However, it is possible to be infected with a different type of HPV from a new partner.
Most people who become infected with HPV will not have any symptoms, but will still be able to transmit the virus to a sex partner. A person can have HPV for months or years before it is found or causes health problems. Sexually transmitted HPV can infect the genital area of men and women. Genital warts, if they appear, are a common indication of HPV infection. HPV usually goes away on its own, without causing any health problems. However in some cases, HPV can lead to serious health problems, including cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina or anus in women, or cancer of the anus or penis in men.
People who have been infected with HPV can often fight off the infection with no treatment. However, side effects of an HPV infection do require treatment. In women, HPV is usually diagnosed through an abnormal Pap test, which is the main test doctors use to detect and prevent cervical cancer in women. Genital warts, if they appear, can be removed if they cause itching, burning or discomfort. However, this requires special treatment at the doctor’s office, and one should never use over the counter wart remover.