What Is HPV?

Learn what HPV is and why women of all ages should know about how to treat and prevent it.

Sanaz Majd, MD

“Cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted infection?!” my patients often shout during our pap smear discussions with a look of disbelief.

Yep--believe it or not, cancer of the cervix is caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is essentially a sexually transmitted virus.  In fact, HPV is THE most common sexually transmitted infection in women. 

What is HPV?

HPV is a virus contracted during sexual intercourse and is transmitted when you come into contact with someone who is carrying the virus.  It’s important to realize that you can become infected with just skin to skin contact—so you can contract it even without having penetrative sex.

There are about 40 different viral strains of HPV and these strains attack both the female and male genital system.

  • Women: In women, about 13 out of these 40 HPV strains can attack the cells of the cervix and turn them into “bad cells,” which can eventually turn into cancer cells if left untreated.  This process can actually take up to ten to twenty years to turn into cancer. 

  • Women and men: In both women and men, about a handful of these forty HPV strains can attack the cells of the genital skin and lining and cause genital warts.  Genital warts are highly contagious and up to sixty-five percent of those who are exposed to a genital wart end up contracting the virus.  That is a great example of why a condom is truly crucial.  It typically takes somewhere between three weeks to eight months after exposure to the virus for someone to actually develop a genital wart themselves, if they develop one at all. 

It’s important to note that women can be infected with both strains at the same time—and in fact, that’s common.

Who Gets HPV?

All sexually active women are at risk for getting HPV.  However, there are certain risk factors that have been associated with contracting it more frequently:

  • Age: Women in their early 20’s are at a higher risk

  • Higher number of partners:  The more partners, the higher the risk

  • History of STI’s:  Those with a history of other sexually transmitted infections have a higher risk

  • Sex at an early age: The earlier people become sexually active, the higher the risk

  • Cigarette smoking:  Those who smoke have not only a higher risk of HPV infections, but also a higher risk of cervical cancer.

  • Unprotected sex:  Those who do not use condoms are at much higher risk of HPV due to exposed genital contact.  But because you can contract the virus with just skin to skin contact, it’s important to realize that condoms are only seventy percent effective in preventing the spread of HPV.

Besides abstinence, the condom is the only way to protect against sexually transmitted infections.  No other birth control methods can do that.  So if you are sexually active, please use a condom to prevent yourself from spreading and contracting HPV and other sexually transmitted infections.


About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd, a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. She sees everything from pediatrics to geriatrics, but her special interests are women's health and patient education. She also loves to teach, and has been doing so since her college days.

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