HPV as a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
HPV has been described as the ‘common cold’ of sexual activity, and emphasis is placed on the 40 HPV varieties affecting the genitals, throat or mouth that are transmitted through sexual contact. These strains of HPV are sexually transmitted diseases/infections (STD/STI’s) and can affect both men and women.
By the age of 50, four out of five sexually active people will have had some type of HPV infection in their lifetime2.
It is possible to contract the infection from even your first sexual encounter. The tiny breaks in the skin during sexual activity result in the spread of the virus. This normally happens without knowing or without showing any symptoms of the virus and sometimes the infection can resolve itself without causing any further complications.
How is sexually transmitted HPV spread?
Sexually transmitted HPV strains are contracted through having oral, anal or vaginal sex with someone who is infected with the virus. It is most commonly spread through anal and vaginal sex.
Other strains of the virus are, however, also spread through skin-to-skin contact, meaning that intercourse is not always required to contract the infection and can merely be spread by touching an infected person or through a small cut or abrasion on the skin. In some very rare cases, an infected mother is able to infect her baby during natural birth.
The virus lives in the body’s epithelial cells – the flat and thin cells which are found on the skin’s surface including surfaces of the anus, vulva, vagina, penis head, cervix, mouth and throat. HPV thrives in the mucous membranes and moist layers of the genital areas and often results in genital warts. Genital warts are often very small initially and not always easy to see, as such many people don't realise they have them. The warts are contagious and spread through touching a wart or the fluid secreted when it ruptures.
Some infections of sexual HPV which are contracted during oral sex, result in warts developing in the mouth, throat and upper respiratory tract regions.
Using a condom does not fully protect you from the HPV virus as a condom still leaves other areas of the skin exposed which can become infected.
Low-Risk and High-Risk HPV infections
Sexually transmitted strains of HPV are divided into two categories:
- Low-risk risk of HPVs, these do not result in cancer but cause warts in the genital, anal, mouth and throat regions. HPV types 6 and 11 have been known to cause about 90% of all genital warts. They also cause recurring respiratory papillomatosis, which is a rare disease where benign tumours begin to form in the air passageways starting in the nose, and spreading through to the mouth and into the lungs.
- High-risk types of HPV which cause cancer. There are more than a dozen HPV types that are high-risk that have been identified so far. HPV types 16 and 18 have been documented to be the types of HPV responsible for cancers caused by HPV. Other common high-risk strains of HPV are 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58. Having these strains does not automatically mean that cancer is a certainty, just that there is a higher risk of developing it, and as such, more frequent medical screening will be required.
2. Basic Information about HPV and Cancer | CDC. Cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/hpv/basic_info/index.htm. Accessed August 14, 2019.