Is HPV a Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD)?

Learn about how human papillomavirus (HPV) is spread

Woman receiving a vaccination
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The human papillomavirus (HPV), which has more than 100 different strains, is an extremely common virus that currently affects more than 20 million Americans. While many people carry the virus and experience no symptoms or medical problems, certain strains of this virus can cause health conditions, including genital warts and cervical cancer.

Is HPV an STD?

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that are transmitted through some aspect of sexual contact.

STIs come in many forms and can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or even parasites. The human papillomavirus is considered to be one of the most common sexually transmitted viruses. It is transmitted through sexual skin contact (not through semen), which means that there doesn't have to be penetration in order for it to pass from one person to another. 

Put more simply, the human papillomavirus is spread through skin-to-skin contact. Genital-on-genital rubbing can be enough to spread the virus. Vaginal and anal intercourse are also methods of HPV transmission, as is oral sex, though it is less common.

Though HPV is considered to be an STI because of its mode of transmission, it is not always categorized as a sexually transmitted disease (STD). This is because the term "disease" can suggest a clear medical problem that has obvious signs or symptoms. When a person who has HPV experiences no symptoms, HPV can be described as an infection that may or may not result in a disease.

It should be noted, however, that not all medical professionals make this distinction.

How to Help Prevent HPV

Since human papillomavirus can be passed on by mere skin contact and not just via penetration, prevention can be difficult. The only guaranteed means of preventing human papillomavirus is through absolute abstinence (not participating in any form of sexual conduct); however, this is unrealistic for most.

Condoms can help (and are recommended if you want to help prevent other sexually transmitted infections and diseases, as well as pregnancy), but keep in mind that they provide only limited protection from HPV because there are parts of the genitals that are left unprotected during sexual activities. 

The HPV vaccine is another method that helps prevent the virus. The FDA-approved vaccine Gardasil has been proven effective against four particular strains of HPV that are known to cause cervical cancer and genital warts. Not everyone is a candidate for Gardasil, but it is FDA-approved for both men and women between the ages of 9 and 26. There is also a new version of Gardasil called Gardasil 9 that helps protect against nine strains of HPV. That one is FDA-approved for women between the ages of 9 and 26 and for boys between the ages of 9 and 15. And there is one other HPV vaccine called Cervarix, which helps protect against cervical cancer and cervical interepithelial neoplasia (but not genital warts). It is FDA-approved for women ages 9 to 25. Any HPV vaccine is most effective when it's given before a person becomes sexually active and is potentially exposed to the virus. 

Getting vaccinated against HPV and using a condom each time that you have sex are both excellent ways to reduce your risk of contracting human papillomavirus.

But even with these precautions, it is best to keep up with your routine checkups and screenings—especially when it comes to women and Pap smears. For instance, in women, even if HPV causes abnormal changes in the cervix that might develop into cervical cancer, a regular Pap smear from your gynecologist can help catch this early so you can be treated before the health problem potentially becomes life-threatening and harder to treat. 

Source:

University of Maryland University Health Center. "Sexually Transmitted Infections." (2009)

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