How is HPV spread?

Like other STIs, HPV is spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact during oral, anal and vaginal sex. It's possible to have sex even if you have HPV or you're concerned about getting it, but get vaccinated, practice safe sex, get tested regularly, and talk to your partners about it.
Like other STIs, HPV is spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact during oral, anal and vaginal sex. It's possible to have sex even if you have HPV or you're concerned about getting it, but get vaccinated, practice safe sex, get tested regularly, and talk to your partners about it.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States, with an estimated 14 million new cases reported every year. It's likely that you will get some type of HPV in your lifetime.

Like other STIs, HPV is spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact during oral, anal and vaginal sex. Many people with HPV don't have any symptoms or may not know they've been exposed, but they can still transmit the infection. It can also take months or years for HPV to appear on an STI test or to show symptoms. This makes it difficult to know who exposed you or who you've transmitted it to.

How is HPV treated?

There isn't currently a treatment for the virus itself. There are treatments for the conditions that HPV causes, like cervical cancer or genital warts. Many people, though, never develop symptoms or even know that they've been infected with HPV. They also never develop additional illnesses as a result of HPV. It's possible, and even common, for people with healthy immune systems to cure themselves of HPV before they even know they have it.

How can you avoid contracting HPV?

Like so many other STIs, the only way to completely avoid contracting HPV is to avoid sexual contact. While it's not passed through the exchange of fluids like other STIs, it is passed through skin contact. You can reduce your risk of contracting HPV by using condoms correctly every time you have sex. If you use condoms incorrectly, or not at all, you greatly increase your risk of exposure to HPV. 

Another way you can prevent HPV is by getting vaccinated. The vaccine is recommended for people between the ages of 11 and 26, though it can be given to children as young as 9. The most important thing about the vaccine is for it to be given before sexual activity and possible exposure to HPV. People who are sexually active or over the age of 26 may get the vaccine if their doctor recommends it, but it will be less effective, as the likelihood of exposure is higher. The vaccine may protect individuals from strains they haven't yet been exposed to, so it is still effective to a point.

How to be responsible about sex and HPV

It's possible to have sex even if you have HPV or you're concerned about getting it. Like with other STIs, there are things that you can do to protect yourself and your partners from contracting it:

Get vaccinated.

The HPV vaccine was fairly controversial when it first came to market in 2006, but it's proven extremely effective. In the 10 years since the vaccine was introduced, infections for the strain that causes cervical cancer have dropped 86% in women between 14 and 19 years old, and 71% in women in their 20s. It's recommended that men and women be vaccinated. Even though men can't get cervical cancer, being vaccinated can prevent transmission to their future partners.

Get tested regularly.

Everyone who's sexually active should be tested for all STIs regularly. Even people in sexually exclusive relationships should consider being tested periodically, as some STIs, like HPV, can lie dormant and not show themselves in a test for months or even years. Knowing your STI status is important regardless of your exclusivity with your partner.

Talk to your partners

Communicating with your partner(s) is just as important as being tested regularly. They have a right to know what your STI status is, just like you have a right to know what theirs is.

Learn to use condoms correctly, every time.

Everyone thinks that they know how to use condoms correctly, but oftentimes, they don't. Use the correct type of condom, learn how to put it on, and remove it carefully. If you wish to prevent STIs, use condoms every time with every partner. 

HPV sounds really scary, but it is possible to limit your risk of contracting it, just like with most STIs. If you're responsible about your sexual health, get vaccinated and communicate with your partners. That way, you're significantly less likely to contract HPV and suffer from other health problems it can cause.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/12/2022
References
SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: "HPV and Cancer."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Genital HPV Infection – Fact Sheet."

National Cervical Cancer Coalition: "HPV and Relationships".

National Foundation for Infectious Diseases: "Facts About HPV for Adults."