What is HPV?HPV is a family of viruses that cause genital warts in men and women. HPV is also known to cause cellular changes that can lead to cancer of the cervix in women and anal cancers especially in gay men. Cervical cancer kills about 5000 women per year. Anal cancers are about 35 times more common in gay men than the general population. In fact epidemiologic studies have proven that a major risk factor for the development of preinvasive or invasive cervical cancer and anal cancers is HPV infection. Early detection through yearly PAP tests and anal and rectal exams is critical for successful treatment of cervical and anal cancer.
How is HPV Spread?HPV is spread through sexual contact. Genital warts resulting from HPV infection can be found around the anus, vulva, or cervix of women and around the anus and the shaft of the penis in men. Visible warts are usually harder to see in women than in men. However, not everyone infected with HPV will develop warts. It should be kept in mind that while the risk of transmitting the virus is highest when there are visible warts, transmission can be spread when no outward signs of HPV are present. Another thing to keep in mind is that HPV can lay dormant for years. Even in long-term monogamous relationships, genital warts or cervical changes can occur without an obvious infectious event. Because of this, in the presence of warts or cervical changes men and women should be screened for HPV even when no recent transmission risk can be identified.
How Do I Protect Myself?Because genital warts can occur on the scrotum, anus or other hard to protect areas, condoms and spermacides are not 100 percent effective in preventing HPV infection. Regardless, safer sex practices should be used with each sexual encounter. Condoms and spermacides are still the most effective protection from HPV and other STD's.
I Have HPV...Now What Should I Do?For women the most important thing to do is to get yearly PAP tests. About 90 percent of all cervical cancers can be detected early through a PAP smear. Other things you should do include:
- Report to your doctor any abnormal vaginal bleeding, flank pain, or fever.
- Inform your physician if you know you have or think you may exposed a partner to HPV.
- Notify your partner that you have HPV and make any decisions about sex, protection, and your health together.
- Use condoms during each and every anal, vaginal, or oral sexual encounter.
- Suggest that your sexual partner(s) get a medical evaluation and an HPV screening.