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What You Need to Know About HPV

A Common But Potentially Dangerous STD

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Updated June 19, 2014

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the United States. Some estimates put the figure at one million new cases each year and a prevalence of 20 percent to 40 percent of sexually active women. Because HPV infection can have few or no symptoms, a majority of those infected may not even be aware that they have the virus. What do men and women need to know about HPV? Knowing a few simple facts can protect you from infection and even save your life.

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.

The Dangers of Anal Cancer

Anal Paps in Men

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.

Safer Sex Resources

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.

Your HPV Vaccine Guide

Condom Use Resources

Condum Buying Guide

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.

Questions to Ask During a Detailed Sexual History

What Does My Future Hold?

Once you are infected with HPV, you will probably carry the virus for life. Remember you can spread the virus when you have visible warts and you may be able to spread the virus when no warts are visible. Women should have yearly PAP tests. Early detection is the key to a good prognosis. The presence of HPV or cellular changes of the cervix should not interfere with a woman's ability to bear children.

Tips For a Long Healthy Life

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