HPV stands for human papillomavirus, and it’s a group of many different viruses that can be transmitted through sexual activity. Some types of HPV cause genital warts (similar, but not the exact same thing, as genital herpes), and other types can lead to cancer. Both men and women can get HPV, and can get cancer caused by HPV, whether it is cancer of the mouth, throat, or various genitals. You may be most familiar with the HPV that causes cervical cancer in women.
Almost all adults will get an HPV virus in their lifetime – 80%, to be exact. HPV is so common because unlike many other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HPV is really hard to prevent even when using condoms. That’s because HPV is transmitted not through bodily fluids, but through intimate skin-to-skin contact. It is most commonly spread during vaginal or anal sex. While using condoms can help prevent HPV, they don’t usually protect us 100%, because during sexual activities, even a condom doesn’t prevent all skin-to-skin contact.
HPV often doesn’t cause any symptoms, and most women don’t find out they have it until they receive a pap smear. Most HPV infections successfully go away on their own within a year or two, but those that don’t are the ones that cause genital warts or cancer.
So what else can you do to help prevent getting HPV?
Luckily, HPV is the only STI that we have a vaccine for – and it’s recommended for both girls AND boys. The HPV vaccine works against many of the strains of the virus that lead to cervical cancer – but not the ones that lead to genital warts.
Doctors recommend that pre-teens get the HPV vaccine before they become sexually active, when they are 11-12 years old. But if you missed it when you were younger, that’s okay. You can still get the vaccine if you are an adult, up to age 45. It’s important to get vaccinated against HPV even if you are an adult and have already been sexually active, to prevent against future infections and cervical cancer.
Have more questions about HPV and the vaccine? Here’s more answers.