The answer is…. It depends. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t!
Confused? Let me explain.
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is now the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. Even though there are over 100 strains (types) of HPV, the good news is that most infections don’t cause any problems and eventually just go away on their own without any treatment. The bad news is, 2 of the HPV types cause of most genital warts and, more seriously, 5 of the HPV types are the cause of most cervical cancers. The ones that cause the genital warts can’t cause cervical cancer, and the ones that cause cancer can’t cause genital warts.
Around 75% of people exposed to the HPV types that cause genital warts will develop them. They can be passed by oral, vaginal, or anal sex. Condoms lower the chance of getting exposed but, because HPV grows on areas outside where the condom covers, the condom does not protect perfectly. Although the warts are usually painless, they can sometimes be irritating, cause itching, and/or pain with sex. Probably the thing that is complained about most with genital warts is simply that folks don’t like having them – they tend to grow on the outside or inside of the vagina or on the surface of the penis. Warts can be treated by your health care provider, but it usually takes several treatments for them to go away.
The HPV types that can cause cervical (the opening of the uterus or womb) cancer do not have any symptoms or signs that would let someone know the HPV is present. As with genital warts, the only perfect protection from HPV is to not have sexual activity because they are also passed by oral, vaginal, or anal sex. Fortunately, even though the thought of getting any type of cancer is scary, HPV causes cell changes on the cervix very slowly. So, if you have regular check-ups, your health care provider will be able to find out if those early changes are happening that may lead to cervical cancer. Treatment can then be done that will get rid of the abnormal (pre-cancer) cells, so they don’t lead to cancer.
One more very important fact about HPV: there are 2 vaccines available that protect against the HPV types that cause 70% of cancers. One of the vaccines also provides protection against the HPV types that cause 90% of genital warts. Both vaccines are recommended for males and females up to the age of 26 and can be given by your health care provider. They are most effective when all 3 doses are given before sexual activity starts.
Many adults who are sexually active will get HPV at some point in their lives from sexual activity, but most will never even know they had it because they have no signs or symptoms. Some, though, will develop genital warts or have changes in their cervix that lead to cancer of the cervix. Take home point? As with so many issues related to having sexual activity – all the studies point out that the longer someone waits to start having sexual activity and the less number of sexual partners someone has, the less the chance there is for problems to occur. Finally, before starting sexual activity of any kind with a partner, get the HPV vaccine series – all 3 doses!
Hope this helps!
– FNF Experts