The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in existence, and more than 43 million sexually active people have one or more types of HPV. There are over 200 strains of the virus, and about 40 of these are spread through sexual contact.
HPV infections are extremely common, and most of the time they don’t cause symptoms or any serious health problems. However, certain types of high-risk HPV cause significant health concerns, including cervical cancer.
Because high-risk HPV doesn’t always cause noticeable symptoms until the infection reaches more advanced stages, people can spread the virus to others without realizing it. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and others.
At his private practice in White Plains and Queens, New York, board-certified OB/GYN Daniel S. Kushner, MD, specializes in diagnosing and treating different strains of HPV. Our team put together this helpful guide with information on HPV and how to prevent the spread of this sexually transmitted infection.
HPV is a very common virus. There are hundreds of strains of HPV, including types that aren’t transmitted sexually and which can lead to warts on your feet, face, and hands.
Most often, when people refer to HPV, they’re referring to the STI. About 40 strains are transmitted sexually through skin-to-skin contact. Some of these sexually transmitted strains lead to genital warts. A few high-risk HPVs are linked to cancer, especially cervical cancer.
Anyone who’s sexually active or has close skin-to-skin contact with a partner’s genitals can get HPV or spread it to their partner. The virus poses the biggest risk to women because of its link to cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-associated cancer, but the virus can also cause cancer of the vagina, vulva, anus, penis, and throat.
It’s important to understand that sexually transmitted HPV rarely causes symptoms. When it does trigger symptoms, the most common is genital warts, which may look like rough bumps or growths that resemble cauliflower on your skin.
HPV diagnosis and treatment
Because HPV is highly contagious but rarely causes symptoms, diagnosing HPV requires testing through your medical doctor, such as a Pap smear. The Pap test screens for precancerous (abnormal) cells and cervical cancer.
If your Pap smear shows abnormal cells, Dr. Kushner may recommend further testing, such as a colposcopy. This test is similar to a Pap smear but includes a specialized microscope that lets him more closely examine and biopsy any abnormal cells.
For patients with HPV, Dr. Kushner makes personalized HPV treatment recommendations based on the strain of HPV you have. This may include watchful waiting, medication, laser removal, electrocautery, or loop electrosurgical excision to remove the abnormal cells.
Preventing the spread of HPV
The only way to guarantee you don’t get sexually transmitted HPV is to abstain from all sexual contact. Because this isn’t practical for most people, it’s important to understand other ways to help reduce the spread of this highly contagious virus.
The best way to protect yourself from HPV is by getting vaccinated against the virus before you become sexually active. This is because the vaccines offer protection only against strains of HPV you haven’t been exposed to previously.
If you’re sexually active but haven’t had the vaccine, talk to Dr. Kushner as soon as possible. The HPV vaccines are approved for everyone between ages 9 and 45, and Dr. Kushner can tell you if you’ll benefit from the shot.
The next best way to help prevent the spread of HPV is to get screened regularly. Screenings not only tell you if you’re positive for HPV, but they also catch the abnormal cells early, when they’re most treatable.
If you do test positive for HPV, be sure to tell your sexual partners so they can get tested, too. And, of course, it’s important to practice safe sex to help stop the spread of HPV and all sexually transmitted infections.
Because HPV spreads through skin-to-skin contact and not through vaginal fluids and semen, condoms and other barrier methods, like dental dams, offer less protection against the virus than other STIs. However, you should still use them correctly every time you have sex to reduce your chances of getting or spreading infections.
Learn more about HPV and what you can do to protect your health by scheduling an appointment online or over the phone with Dr. Kushner at his New York office nearest you.