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HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common STI (sexually transmitted infection). In fact, at least half of Americans have HPV at some point in their lives. A person can get HPV through any sexual activity that involves direct skin-to-skin contact. You can catch HPV by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who already has HPV.

Answers to some common questions about HPV:

What health problems can HPV cause?

HPV can cause genital warts in both women and men. It is also associated with several cancers. Left untreated, HPV can cause cervical cancer in women and anal cancer in both women and men.

How can I tell if I have HPV?

Most people with HPV don't have any symptoms. Sometimes painless warts develop on the genitals. In women, these warts may increase in size and number during pregnancy and then go away after childbirth. Most of the time, people only learn that they have HPV during a medical check-up or never find out that they have HPV at all.

There is no test that can detect all of the many types of HPV. Because HPV is so common and usually harmless, most people don't need to be tested for the virus anyway. People can, however, watch out for the diseases that HPV can cause. In women, regular Pap tests can detect abnormal cells on the cervix before cancers develop.

It is also important to check your body regularly. Sometimes a wart can be on the pubic region or inner thigh (areas not covered by a condom) and can be spread by skin to skin contact. If you see a bump, it's important to get it checked by a doctor or nurse.

Is there treatment for HPV?

Because HPV is a virus, only the symptoms can be treated. For example, warts can be removed when they appear, but the virus stays inside the body. The risk of cervical cancer can be reduced with regular screening. If abnormal changes to the cervix are detected through a Pap test, doctors can prevent cancer from developing by removing the unhealthy cells.

How can I reduce my risk of getting HPV?

There are two HPV vaccines available for young women between the ages of 11 and 26. These vaccines can help prevent genital warts and cervical cancer. Soon, vaccines may be recommended for young men, too.

Keep in mind that you can catch HPV through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. So, of course, you can reduce your risk of getting HPV by avoiding sex, especially unprotected sex. Because HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact, condoms don't provide perfect protection against HPV, but they can reduce the risk. If you are having oral sex, using a barrier like a dental dam or a condom split length-wise can also lower your risk of catching HPV.

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