The only 100 percent effective way to prevent HPV transmission is abstinence from any sexual contact, including oral, anal, and vaginal sex. However, for most adults, complete abstinence is not a realistic option.
Limit your number of partners
Another HPV prevention strategy is to limit the number of sexual partners you have and to be monogamous while you are in a sexual relationship. The more sexual partners you have, the more possible exposure you have to HPV. Some studies also suggest that knowing a new partner for eight months or longer before having sex can reduce your risk of HPV transmission. The risk is lowered because that time period allows any HPV infection that is present in the potential partner to clear.
Use a condom
If you are sexually active, using a condom can help lower the risk of HPV transmission. It is important to use a condom from start to finish of every sex act, including oral and anal sex. HPV is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. Because HPV can infect areas that are not covered by the condom, condoms will not fully protect you against contracting HPV, but condoms do help in HPV prevention. Also, never reuse a condom.
Get a Pap smear
It’s important for women to have regular check-ups, which include Pap smears to look for cervical cancer in its earliest stages — when it is most treatable. The Pap smear is a test that checks for abnormalities in the cells that line the cervix and is one of the best ways to detect cervical cancer. All women over age 21 should be getting routine Pap smears. Pap smears are now emerging as an important screening test for men at risk for anal lesions. Men at risk include gay, bisexual men, and HIV-positive people. If you have health concerns or think you might have HPV, talk to your doctor.
HPV signs and symptoms
Most people with HPV don’t have any symptoms or health problems. Sometimes HPV can cause genital warts. Some types of HPV can cause cancer.
Unfortunately, most people who have a high-risk type of HPV will never show any signs of the infection until it’s already caused serious health problems. That’s why regular checkups are so important. In many cases, cervical cancer can be prevented by finding abnormal cell changes that, if left untreated, could develop into cancer.
A Pap smear can detect these abnormal cells in your cervix. A Pap test doesn’t directly test for cancer, or even HPV, but it can discover abnormal cell changes that are likely caused by HPV. These problem areas can be monitored by your nurse or doctor and treated before turning into something more serious.
There isn’t a test for high-risk HPV in the vulva, penis, anus, or throat, and the HPV itself doesn’t have any symptoms. If it becomes cancer, then there may be some symptoms.
- Penile cancer — cancer of the penis — might show symptoms like changes in color or thickness of the skin of your penis, or a painful sore might show up on your penis.
- Anal cancer might cause anal bleeding, pain, itching, or discharge, or changes in bowel habits.
- Vulvar cancer — cancer of the vulva — might show symptoms like changes in color/thickness of the skin of your vulva. There may be chronic pain, itching, or there may be a lump.
- Throat cancer might cause a sore throat, ear pain that doesn’t go away, constant coughing, pain or trouble swallowing or breathing, weight loss, or a lump or mass in your neck.
If you develop any of these symptoms, see a doctor right away.
If I have high-risk HPV, will I get cancer?
High-risk HPV can cause normal cells to become abnormal. These abnormal cells can lead to cancer over time. High-risk HPV most often affects cells in the cervix, but it can also cause cancer in the vagina, vulva, anus, penis, mouth, and throat.
The good news is most people recover from HPV infections with no health problems at all. We don’t know why some people develop long-term HPV infections, precancerous cell changes, or cancer. But we do know that having another disease that makes it difficult for you to fight infections makes it more likely HPV will cause cervical cancer. Smoking cigarettes also makes HPV more likely to cause cervical cancer.
There’s no cure for HPV, but it usually takes several years for cancer to develop, and abnormal cells in the cervix can be detected and treated before they turn into cancer. And the vast majority of HPV infections are temporary and not serious, so don’t spend a ton of energy worrying about whether you have HPV. Just make sure you’re not skipping your regular checkups, including Pap and/or HPV tests.