A man in a grey shirt putting a pink condom on his two fingers
Condoms Don't Fully Protect You From This STD, But There's A Shot To Keep You Safe
by Sydnee Lyons
Originally Published: 

The list of STIs is just about as long as the receipt you get at CVS after buying exactly one item (like, say, a pack of condoms). There are a lot of them, and the most common STI of them all? Human papillomavirus, or HPV, which if you're at CVS or anywhere really, begs the question, "Do condoms protect against HPV?"

Well, it's complicated. But before we get into that, there are a few things you should know about HPV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is the most common STI of all, but did you know that about 79 million Americans are infected with HPV right now? Or that another 14 million get infected each year? I'm no math whiz, but those numbers don't look great.

Here's what they really mean: According to Planned Parenthood, there are about 100 types of HPV, and approximately 40 of them affect your genital area, including your vulva, vagina, cervix, rectum, and anus. It's spread through skin-to-skin contact, so basically, if you're sexually active, you can get HPV at some point in your life. Before you freak out, you should know that in most instances, HPV infections aren't super threatening and will usually go away on their own. In fact, STD expert Dr. H. Hunter Handsfield, Professor Emeritus of Medicine at the University of Washington Center for AIDS and STD, told Elite Daily, "For every one woman diagnosed, there are 10 that are undiagnosed. It's so common that it needs to be de-stigmatized."

You might be wondering, "If it's no big deal, why all the hype?" Well, at least 12 strains of HPV are considered high-risk HPV because they can lead to cancer — types 16 and 18, especially. In addition to cervical cancer, HPV can also cause cancer in your vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat.

Now that you know what's at stake, here's how you can be safe when it comes to HPV.

Can HPV infection be prevented?

According to Planned Parenthood and every sex-ed teacher ever, the best way to protect yourself from any STI (HPV included) is to abstain from sex. But since most people have sex at some point in their lives and the infection is so common and so easily transmitted, it's almost impossible to be 100 percent safe. Luckily, there are things you can do to lower your chances of infection rather than eliminate them altogether.

What are the most effective methods of protecting against HPV?

This brings us to the question at hand. Do condoms protect against HPV? If you've been paying attention, you probably know by now that the answer is no. Condoms and dental dams are not as effective against HPV as they are against other STIs like chlamydia. That's because you might have skin-to-skin contact with areas that aren't covered by either a condom or a dental dam during sex.

Your best defense against HPV (especially, the types that develop into cancer) is to get vaccinated. You can do this at your local Planned Parenthood health center or through your private doctor. There are three versions of the HPV vaccine — Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix. All three protect against types 16 and 18 of HPV, which are responsible for 70 percent of all cervical cancer cases. Gardasil also protects against the types that cause genital warts, while Gardasil 9 protects against an additional five types that cause cancers of other areas.

Are there screening tests available for HPV?

Most people who contract HPV — even high-risk HPV — show no symptoms and may never know that they are infected, which is why it's important for women to have regular HPV tests and Pap smears. Note that a Pap smear is typically part of your annual wellness exam as a woman, but an HPV test might not be, so ask your doctor about doing one of those, as well.

For both of these, your doctor will collect a small sample of cells from your cervix and test them for any abnormalities like precancerous cells that, if left untreated, can develop into cervical cancer. Unfortunately, there is no HPV test for high-risk HPV in the vulva, penis, anus, or throat and this type of HPV shows no symptoms until it becomes cancerous.

What are the symptoms of HPV?

High-risk HPV has no symptoms, which is why screening tests look for early signs of cancer (in the cervix) rather than of HPV itself. As for other areas that may be affected by HPV, symptoms may only be present after it develops into cancer. According to Planned Parenthood, cancer of the vulva, for example, may result in chronic pain and itching of the vulva while throat cancer may cause a sore throat, persistent earaches, and difficulty swallowing.

Low-risk HPV, on the other hand, causes genital warts, which are small, fleshy bumps in your genital region. Like warts on most other parts of your body, these can be treated or removed easily by your doctor. They are not dangerous and do not lead to cancer, so you can breathe a sigh of relief!

Is treatment available for HPV infection?

There is no cure for HPV, which is why you should take precautions to avoid infection by getting vaccinated and scheduling regular screenings. If your HPV or Pap test is abnormal, your doctor may recommend further testing — like a colposcopy to take a closer look at the cervix — and treatment — like cryotherapy to freeze and remove precancerous cells.

Remember that because HPV is so common, most people can get infected at some point in their lives once they are sexually active, and in most instances, your body will rid itself of the infection without you ever knowing. So if you are diagnosed with HPV, there's nothing to be ashamed of!

HPV becomes a concern when you're infected with the types that lead to cancer, but even then, there are still measures you can take to protect yourself in the long run. If you haven't yet, talk to your doctor about getting tested and vaccinated against HPV. Everyone between the ages of nine and 26 can get the HPV vaccine, so don't waste any more time. After scheduling your own doctor appointments, taking charge of your sexual health is probably the most adult thing you could do.

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