How to Protect Yourself From HPV and Cervical Cancer


IstockphotoThe human papillomavirus (HPV) is nicknamed "the common cold of STDs" because if you're a sexually active adult, you've probably contracted several of the 100 different types out there—more than 30 of which are sexually transmitted—and you probably had no idea. A new vaccine promises to make the virus much more scarce in the future, but HPV is still the number one cause of cervical cancer and genital warts.

Pap smears are a must for all women
"HPV really is harmless to the vast majority of people," says H. Hunter Handsfield, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle and a nationally recognized STD expert. "It's like having staph or strep on our skins," he says, "pretty universal, unavoidable, and usually not harmful." But several strains can lead to cervical cancer, so all women should have yearly Pap smears to screen for cancerous changes.

Genital warts can be pesky and unattractive, and removing them can be painful, but they are more of a cosmetic effect of HPV than a true health risk, experts say.

Introducing the Gardasil vaccine
Gardasil, the HPV vaccine introduced in 2006, protects against the two strains of the virus that are most likely to cause cancer, as well as the two strains of the virus that are the culprits in most cases of genital warts.

The CDC recommends that girls be immunized against HPV at age 11 or 12, before they are sexually active, but girls and women ages 9 to 26 are approved to get the vaccine, in hopes they haven't yet caught the cancer-causing strains of the virus.

Also use condoms to prevent HPV
Using condoms or other latex or plastic barriers can help prevent HPV infection, although they are not completely effective because the virus can be present on areas of the skin not covered by the latex. The best prevention available, other than abstinence, is believed to be the HPV vaccine.