How is HPV transmitted?

HPVs that infect the genital area are sexually transmitted.

HPV viruses are very common. So much so that more than 75% of women and men will have this type of infection at one point of their life or another, and between 10% and 70% of women and men have HPV at any one time. HPV is most common in young women and men who are in their late teens and early 20s.

HPV can be transmitted through skin-to-skin sexual contact, whether or not there is penetration. It can be transmitted through vaginal or anal intercourse, oral sex and mutual masturbation (genital touching). The vaginal and anal tracts are particularly susceptible to sexually-transmitted HPV and the risk of transmission is greatest during penetration without a condom. This being said, HPV is also found on parts of the body such as the vulva, scrotum and inner thighs which are not covered by a condom. It is thus possible to for partners to transmit HPV even when a condom is used.

What are the signs and symptoms of an HPV infection?

The types of HPV that cause genital warts do not cause cancer. Genital warts (also called Condylomata) may be flat or look like a small cauliflower. They can appear on the vulva, cervix, penis, scrotum, rectum, or thigh area.

The types of HPV that can cause cancer are often a “silent infection”. They have no obvious signs or symptoms, and most people will not even know they are infected. For women, the main concern is infection of the cells of the cervix. These infections can lead to changes in the cervical cells that can be observed under the microscope in a Pap test.

How can people protect themselves against infection with HPV?

Anyone who has engaged in sexual activity with a partner is at risk of getting HPV.

Practicing safer sex, including condom use, can lower your risk of sexually transmitted infections. Having multiple partners increases your risk of HPV infection.

Is there a test for HPV?

Currently, in Canada there is an HPV DNA test approved for women but not for men.

Once I have HPV, do I have it forever?

Most HPV infections in young men and women are transient, lasting no more than one or two years. Usually, the body clears the infection on its own. It is estimated that the infection will persist in only about 1% of women. It is those infections that persist which may lead to cancer. There is some research that suggests that the virus can hide deep in the affected mucosa or skin for several years, below detectable levels. These are called “latent” infections. Having an HPV-positive test followed by an HPV-negative test might mean two different things: that the virus has been completely cleared by the body, or that the level of infection is so small that laboratory tests cannot detect it. Thus, HPV might “reappear” several years after an infection (whether or not it was treated) when the immune system weakens (because of aging, pregnancy, illness, etc.) and then cause lesions. It is unknown what proportion of HPV infections go latent, nor what proportions are truly cleared by the body.

If I already had HPV, can I get it again?

It is possible. There are several types of HPV. Infection with one type will not result in immunity to the other types. Moreover, research has yet to determine whether infection and clearance from one type of HPV provides immunity against subsequent infections from the same HPV type.

Is there a cure for HPV?

There is no cure for HPV infection itself, but there is treatment for the effects of HPV.

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