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What is human papillomavirus (HPV)? Is it the same thing as genital warts?

HPV (human papillomavirus) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by a virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), genital HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease. About 20 million Americans are currently living with HPV, and there are an estimated six million new cases every year. There are about 100 different strains (kinds or types) of HPV and over 40 of those can infect someone’s genital areas. HPV is usually passed by close skin-to-skin sexual contact (including oral, anal or vaginal sex) between someone with the infection and their sexual partner.

Different strains of HPV affect the body differently; some strains can be cleared from the body over time with no negative effects and no treatment. Others cause visible genital warts or an increased risk for cancer of the cervix, penis, anus, vulva, vagina and/or throat. The types of HPV that cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancer.

In the U.S., there are two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, which have been approved and offer protection against HPV for both guys and girls. Gardasil has been shown to protect females from the four types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cleared Gardasil to be given to boys ages 9 to 26 as well as girls these ages. Cervarix is approved only for females and targets the two strains of HPV that are the leading causes of cervical cancer.

There are many types of HPV. Some cause genital warts, but only a health care provider can diagnose HPV. A Pap test can be used to diagnose irregular cells on the cervix or in the rectum caused by HPV. Talk with your health care provider about whether you might benefit from a cervical or anal Pap.

Once a health care provider makes a diagnosis for HPV, he or she will talk with you about the specific options that are available to you. Treatments are available to help people manage their HPV symptoms, but because it is a virus, it may remain in someone’s body for life.

HPV is spread through certain sexual behaviors. If you choose to be sexually active, the best way to minimize your risk is to use condoms and safer sex methods during all types of sexual touching. Keep in mind that condoms may not cover all areas of the genital skin where the virus is present. Also, the more sexual partners you have, and the more partners they’ve had, the greater your risk of getting infected.

For more information, visit the American Sexual Health Association’s website.

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