HPV stands for human papillomavirus, which is a group of more than 40 different viruses that can affect the genitals, mouth or throat. HPV transmission occurs most commonly through sexual, genital-to-genital contact. Oral sex can also spread the disease, though this is less common. Unfortunately, many people who have an HPV infection have no symptoms and don't know they're infected. This is one of the reasons that HPV is now the most common STD in the U.S. and one of the most common in the world.
The most likely method of HPV transmission is typically penetrative sex. This can be vaginal or anal sex, in straight or same-sex couples. Any type of genital contact, even if there is no penetration involved, can also spread HPV, though it is usually less likely to do so than actual intercourse. Oral sex can also present the risk of HPV transmission into the throat, or from the throat to the genitals.
Up to 90% of people who contract HPV may never know they have the infection. The immune system generally purges the virus from their bodies within about two years. The remaining 10% of people who become infected with HPV may show such symptoms as genital warts, or they could eventually develop cancer. Cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer caused by HPV, but cancer of the vulva, penis, anus and vagina may also occur. In rare cases, throat and mouth cancer could result from HPV oral transmission.
HPV transmission usually won't cause symptoms immediately. Genital warts may show up within weeks, or they could show up several months after the sexual contact. These warts sometimes go away on their own, but in a percentage of cases a surgical procedure is required to remove them. Genital warts can recur for years, or they can break out once and never come back.
The various cancers usually don't show any type of symptoms until they're advanced, which can take years. Cancer from HPV transmission and infection may show up even decades later. Routine screenings including annual pap smears and physical examinations may help catch these cancers in the early stages.
It is important to try to minimize HPV risk by practicing "safe sex." This includes knowing a sexual partner's history as much as possible, and practicing the use of condoms, which can typically help prevent some infections. It is also vital to avoid direct contact with someone's genitals if warts are visible. Vaccines are available that may help protect both males and females from HPV transmission as long as they're given before age 26.