Whether you are sexually active or not, have already been infected with HPV, or it’s the first time you hear about it, there are steps that you can take to protect yourself and to limit your risk of contracting or transmitting the virus.
The HPV virus can infect anyone who has ever had a sexual encounter even without penetration. The most common transmission is by skin-to-skin contact with the penis, scrotum, vagina, vulva, or anus of an infected person. Kissing or touching a partner’s genitals with the mouth can also transmit the HPV virus.
The fact that you can have the virus without having any signs and symptoms makes it even more important to take steps to protect yourself and your partner.
Abstinence of all sexual contact, even skin-to-skin sexual activity without penetration, is the only way to completely avoid contracting the HPV virus. Lifelong monogamy – having one long-term sexual partner – is another effective way to reduce your risk. Basically, the more sexual partners you have, the higher your risk of contracting HPV.
Condoms do not guarantee complete protection against HPV because the virus can be contracted through skin-to-skin contact beyond the covered area. Nevertheless, condom use is a good risk-reduction strategy and provides excellent protection against other sexually transmitted infections as well.
Smoking makes the body less able to fight off HPV infection and is a factor in the development of various cancers – and genital warts.
Vaccination is up to 90% effective at preventing the HPV types responsible for most genital warts and HPV-related cancers. There are three vaccines that are available and approved for use in Canada, each of which protects against certain HPV types:
The latest 9-valent vaccine protects against the nine HPV types that are known to cause approximately 90% of cervical cancers, 80% of cervical pre-cancers, 75% of HPV-related vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers and pre-cancers, and over 90% of genital warts.
In Canada, HPV vaccination is approved for females aged 9 to 45 and for males aged 9 to 45. The effectiveness of the vaccines can vary depending on age. For example, research has shown that vaccination provides the best levels of protection (antibodies) in girls between the ages of 9 and 13. Since the vaccines were developed to prevent HPV, not to treat it, scientists say that it will work best if received before a person becomes sexually active.
Numerous scientific studies and clinical trials were done to ensure that HPV vaccines are safe. People who were subjects of the studies had very few serious side effects. The most common is temporary soreness at the site of injection. In some cases, HPV vaccination is not recommended, such as in the case of women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or people who have certain blood conditions or an immune disorder.
Speak to your health-care professional to see if you are the right candidate for HPV vaccination, to learn about the cost and availability in your province, or to discuss any concerns or questions you may have.
The HPV vaccine does not protect against other sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy. Even if you have been vaccinated, you should always use a condom during sex to protect yourself, as well as an effective means of birth control.
The earlier the consequence of an HPV infection is found, the better chance there is of fighting it.
If you are a woman, the best defence against cervical cancer is to have regular Pap tests and/or HPV tests. These tests will detect abnormal cells in your cervix that could lead to cervical cancer. A woman should visit a health care provider to have cervical cancer screening tests every few years or according to her province’s guidelines.
Although Pap tests/HPV tests are only available for women, men can be examined by their doctor for genital warts caused by HPV and for signs of cancers of the penis, anus, and mouth and throat. Both men and women should visit a doctor for regular health exams if they think they are at risk of contracting HPV or any other sexually transmitted infection.