HPV can be fatal, and although it is most often a minor infection, almost everyone is infected at some point. Most people do not know when they are infected, and we do not know for whom the infection will progress to disease. For these reasons, everyone should do what they can to prevent themselves and those they love from the potential consequences of this infection:
- Get vaccinated. The HPV vaccine is safe and effective. Studies have shown that the vaccine protects against infection, cellular changes that are predictive of cancer, and anal and genital warts. Indeed, HPV infection rates in teenage girls dropped by two-thirds in the 10 years since the vaccine was introduced.
- Practice safe sex. Since HPV is transmitted from one person to another during sexual encounters, the best way to avoid infection is abstinence. You can also decrease the chance of infection by having sex with only one other person who is not infected with HPV. Condoms may also decrease the chance of getting or spreading HPV. However, because condoms do not cover all areas that can be infected, and because people do not always know they are infected, these methods are not 100 percent effective in preventing infection.
- Get regular Pap tests. Cervical cancer was once the most common cause of cancer in the U.S., but the Papanicolaou (Pap) test changed that. A Pap test detects whether or not cervical cells have begun to show changes consistent with the development of cancer (pre-cancerous changes). Cervical cancer most often develops 15 to 20 years after HPV infection. So while infection generally occurs in teenagers and young adults, cervical cancer is more common in women in their 40s and 50s. The Pap test gives doctors the ability to detect cervical cell changes early, leading to faster and more successful treatment. Learn more about Pap test guidelines for women of all ages and view an infographic.