HPV (otherwise known as human papillomavirus) is the most common STD, regardless of one’s age, race, or sexual history. More than five million men and women get HPV each year, and almost half of all sexually active individuals will contract HPV at some point in their lives.
HPV can be either high-risk or low-risk. High-risk HPV can lead to anal and cervical cancers if left untreated. In some cases of HPV, genital warts can occur around the genital or anus (they can also occur in the mouth or throat as result of oral sex). However, in most cases, HPV has no symptoms, and most people don’t even know they have it. There is no way to prevent most HPV infections, as even condom use will not protect against them. HPV is spread through “shedding,” when skin cells from an infected person come into contact with the genitals, anus, or mouth of an uninfected person.
Vaccinations are currently in place for women under the age of 30, and these shots (which are administered as a series of three) can help to prevent certain strains of HPV. However, they don’t protect against all forms of HPV. Currently, the vaccinations protect against only 70% of the strains that can lead to cervical cancer, and although this is promising, it is still far from perfect. Additionally, if you already have HPV, then you can’t receive the vaccination. However, most of the time, your body’s immune system launches an attack and defeats the infection, and also in most cases, HPV does not develop into cancer.
Still, it’s important to be vigilant. HPV is considered the number one factor behind all types of cervical cancer, and thousands of women are diagnosed with new cases of cervical cancer each year. While cervical cancer is treatable, it is a sad fact that many women don’t know they have it until it has progressed quite far. This is because cervical cancer often has no symptoms (although, in some cases, abnormal vaginal bleeding can be a warning sign), and for this reason it often goes untreated until it is too late.
Furthermore, the rates of anal and oral cancers are growing, and some doctors believe this trend is linked to the increase of HPV in sexually active individuals. (In men and women, anal cancer has increased 160 percent and 78 percent, respectively, and this increase has occurred in just the past three decades!) So, although some strains of HPV are asymptomatic and not life-threatening, it’s important to remember not to be casual about this STD, as HPV can lead to cancer in some people. You definitely need to keep up with regular checkups with your doctor to closely monitor your status and make sure that the HPV doesn’t develop into cancerous cells.
It’s also a good reminder to always practice safer sex, while being aware that no sex is ever completely 100 percent safe. All sex comes with some form of risk, and even when you use condoms and dental dams, you are still at risk for HPV and other STDs. However, if you are proactive about your sexual health and have yearly Pap tests (and HPV/STD tests), you are taking important steps to protect yourself and your partner(s).