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How to Prevent Human Papillomavirus: Four Key Ways

Practicing safe sex can have lots of beneficial outcomes for your health. Riskier sexual activities can increase a person’s exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. One STI in particular, called human papillomavirus (HPV), can lead to cancer or genital warts.

In this article, we’ll explore how to prevent human papillomavirus transmission and infection and which methods offer the strongest protection.

Young adults and adolescents aged 15 to 25 have the highest rates of HPV, studies say. In fact, about 75 percent of all HPV infections likely occur within this age range.

Certain risk factors influence a person’s likelihood of developing HPV. These include:

  • Type of HPV
  • Immune status
  • Concurrent infection of another STI with HPV
  • Giving birth at a young age
  • Smoking

All of these factors can increase a person’s risk of contracting HPV. Before we dive into HPV prevention methods, let’s unpack why they matter.

Human papillomavirus prevention and practicing safe sex with HPV matter because an infection can lead to genital warts and cervical cancer. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), two types of HPV cause 70 percent of pre-cancer lesions and cervical cancer. This is significant because cervical cancer accounts for about 7.5 percent of all female cancer deaths.

HPV can also lead to other types of cancer. There are over 100 types of HPV, and about 14 of these can increase the risk of developing other cancers, including vulva, vagina, anus, penis, and throat cancer.

Let’s look at the most effective forms of human papillomavirus prevention.

Do condoms protect against HPV? Yes — in fact, safe sex is a key type of HPV prevention.

For people who are sexually active, having HPV can create feelings of anxiety or embarrassment. It’s normal to feel this way, but HPV is very common. No matter your health history, it’s important to communicate honestly with your sexual partner and vice versa.

Practicing safe sex with HPV can protect you and/or your partner from contracting the virus. However, this approach isn’t foolproof: HPV can be spread through skin-to-skin contact, so some risk remains. The female body usually clears HPV within two years, and heterosexual cisgender men rarely develop major health issues from HPV. Wearing a condom can reduce the risk of transmitting HPV. In addition, limiting your sexual partners can also reduce your risk of contracting HPV.

If you’re wondering how to prevent getting HPV, you should know that a healthy lifestyle offers extra protection.

Strengthening your immune system by looking after your general health may help protect against HPV. By giving your body adequate nutrients and fuel, you’re also boosting your immune system’s ability to keep you strong.

If you smoke, consider cutting down or quitting, especially if you’re concerned about HPV. Research shows that cigarette smoking increases the risk of cervical cancer among people with HPV compared to non-smokers.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends starting Pap smear screening not earlier than age 21 and continuing screening every three years. After you turn 30, you can do HPV testing every five years in addition to regular Pap screening, since these two tests go hand-in-hand. Alternatively, you can opt for HPV testing alone every five years.

According to the WHO, HPV vaccination for female children should start at age 9–13, before they’re sexually active. And female adults 30 and older need to be screened for abnormal cervical cells.

Unfortunately, there is currently no routine or approved HPV screening for men. However, men who have genital warts are often diagnosed with HPV, since this is the most common sign of HPV infection in men.

The CDC recommends the Gardasil vaccine for everyone ages 11–12, while the WHO recommends vaccination of female children from age 9–13

For people who get their first dose at ages 9–13, a two-dose HPV vaccine schedule is recommended. The second dose should be given 6-12 months after the first one.

If a person gets their first dose of HPV vaccine at age 15 and over, a three-dose schedule is recommended. The second dose should be given 1–2 months after the first dose, and the third dose needs to be given six months after the first.

Is the HPV vaccine safe? In the United States, Gardasil has been approved by the FDA. HPV vaccination risks are minor and include pain, redness, stinging, bruising, bleeding, nausea, headaches, fever, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In very rare cases, people develop Gardasil side effects years later, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, premature ovarian failure, complex regional pain syndrome, and Guillain-Barre syndrome.

As with all immunizations, there are HPV vaccine pros and cons. Thankfully, evidence indicates that Gardasil is almost 100 percent effective at preventing cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. 

Most health organizations recommend the HPV vaccine. To protect against other STIs and illnesses, using condoms and maintaining a healthy lifestyle are also highly recommended. In fact, taking steps to prevent human papillomavirus infection can help you lead a healthier life. 

Dempsey, Amanda F. “Human papillomavirus: the usefulness of risk factors in determining who should get vaccinated.” Reviews in obstetrics & gynecology vol. 1,3 (2008): 122-8.

“Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Cervical Cancer.” World Health Organization, Accessed Mar. 2021, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/human-papillomavirus-(hpv)-and-cervical-cancer.

“STD Facts - Human Papillomavirus (HPV).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19 Jan. 2021, www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm.

Xi, Long Fu et al. “Relationship between cigarette smoking and human papilloma virus types 16 and 18 DNA load.” Cancer epidemiology, biomarkers & prevention: a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, cosponsored by the American Society of Preventive Oncology vol. 18,12 (2009): 3490-6. doi:10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-09-0763

Safety Information for HPV Vaccine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9 Sept. 2020, www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/vaccines/hpv-vaccine.html.

“Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccines.” National Cancer Institute, Mar. 2021, www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-vaccine-fact-sheet.

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