Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection. About 85% of people will get this infection during their lifetimes, usually in their teens or twenties. A woman gets HPV by sexual contact with another person. This infection is not transmitted by food, water, insects, animals, or blood transfusion. HPV is rarely transmitted without sexual contact.
What is human papillomavirus?
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a DNA virus (a virus that contains DNA as its genetic material). It infects by attacking healthy cells. Then it hijacks the way those cells duplicate in order to reproduce itself. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. HPV infections often cause no symptoms and resolve on their own. In some people, the infection persists and leads to cancerous changes in cells. Most commonly, the cervix, or lowest part of the uterus (womb) is involved.
Apart from cancer, HPV infection can also cause:
- Anogenital warts (small swellings on the genitals or anal area caused by HPV infection)
- Cervical cancer precursors (HSIL). These are cellular abnormalities caused by HPV that may progress to cancer.
- Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (small growths in the throat, near the vocal cords)
There are more than 200 types of human papillomavirus known, and new types are being discovered. Infection with one type gives protection against reinfection with that type. But you can still get infected with any of the other types. The types of HPV that cause skin and genital warts, but not cancer, are considered low-risk types. Some types of HPV give rise to cancers and are called high-risk or oncogenic types.
HPV and cancer
The human papillomavirus is associated with several types of cancer. It is estimated to cause cervical cancer (cancer of the cervix) in almost 200,000 women in the U.S. every year. Even when detected and treated early, this cancer can prevent pregnancy. Some 4,000 women in the United States die of cervical cancer every year.
HPV also causes other cancers:
- 14,000 people have oropharyngeal cancer. This cancer affects the back of the throat, tonsils, and tongue.
- 6,500 people have anal cancer. This cancer affects the anus, the lower opening of the digestive system.
- 3,500 people have vulvar and vaginal cancer, which affects the external genital organs.
- 900 people have cancer of the penis.
How does a woman get HPV?
HPV only exists in humans. A woman can only get it from a human. Birds, insects, and animals do not transmit this infection.
The virus is transmitted during intimate contact when some wounding of the epithelium (the outermost layer of the skin) happens. This allows virus particles to enter the basal epithelial cells, which are normally protected by the epithelium. The virus-infected cells then multiply and form a wart. Such warts are then infectious to normal skin on close contact and friction.
A woman can get HPV by intimate contact with someone infected with the virus. The most common methods are vaginal, penile, anal, or oral sex. Younger women are most likely to be infected. Once one part of the body is infected, the infection can spread to other parts. This is called autoinoculation.
An infected, pregnant mother may infect her baby. This is called vertical transmission and can cause a disorder called juvenile-onset recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.
Risk factors for HPV infection are associated with sexual behavior. The number of total sex partners and recent partners is related to the risk of HPV infection. Other possible risks, such as genetics, smoking, younger age at sexual debut, and higher number of pregnancies, are not proven.
HPV is not only a disease of people who have sex with many. A woman can get HPV the first time she has sex.
People with HPV usually have no symptoms and may not know they have this infection. HPV infection is so common that almost everyone who is sexually active will get it. It happens in heterosexual as well as same-sex relationships.
Can you get HPV without having sex?
The transmission of HPV by non-sexual contact is rare and is called horizontal transmission. It is made possible by the hardiness of the virus, which can survive in the environment for days. HPV can survive drying, heat, and alcohol-based disinfectants.
The virus can survive on towels, fingers, surfaces, and hospital instruments. These can all be a source of infection. The most likely is close skin-to-skin contact (non-sexual), but even this is uncommon.
HPV infection can be transmitted by sharing sex toys. HPV has been found in sewage, rivers, and other water bodies. But the transmission of this infection through water has never been seen.
How to avoid HPV infection
There is no medicine to cure this infection. HPV may go away on its own or progress slowly to cause cancer. Avoiding this infection is the best way to keep yourself safe.
Always use a condom while having sex. This will prevent the transmission of the virus if your partner is infected.
A mutually monogamous relationship
Two people who only have sex with each other have a high degree of safety from sexually transmitted diseases.
The HPV vaccine is safe and effective. If you are 9 to 14 years old, your doctor will give you two doses. The second dose is 6 to 12 months after the first. If you are 15 years or older, you will need three doses. The second dose is given 1 to 2 months after the first, and the third dose 6 months after the first dose.
The HPV vaccine works as prevention. It does not cure existing infections or prevent the development of cancer. For this reason, it is best to take the vaccine before sexual debut.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, and it is dangerous. Every year, 36,500 men and women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cancers caused by this virus.
People who are infected have no symptoms and do not know they are infected. This contributes to the spread of infection to their sexual partners. A woman can get infected by having sexual contact with an infected partner of any gender. Multiple sex partners increases the risk. Practicing safe sex and taking the vaccine can prevent 90% of HPV infections.
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