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How is HPV Spread?

HPV or Human Papillomavirus is classified as a sexually transmitted infection, the most common in many Western countries, but sexual contact is only one way this virus is spread. There are nearly 200 strains of HPV, which may have different symptoms, so HPV is spread in a variety of ways. So, the answer to the question "How is HPV spread?" is – it depends on the strain of HPV that the carrier has. It is also possible to have more than one strain at the same time. HPV transmission occurs through direct skin-to-skin contact or contact with something that has been touching an infected person's skin.

One of the factors that makes the spread of HPV difficult to control is that not all the strains of HPV produce visible or noticeable symptoms. Also, even the strains that can cause symptoms may not produce them in some people or may take some time to appear. This means that a person may have been infected with HPV, but be unaware because of the absence of symptoms. They could be innocently infecting others without knowing.

The most common symptom of HPV is warts, including common warts that kids get on their hands, plantar warts on the soles of the feet, flat warts on the face and genital warts. The common warts are produced by a moderately infectious HPV strain and these spread by direct skin contact with the wart or something that has been in contact with the wart and carries the virus. These warts are not dangerous; they are unsightly, uncomfortable and can bleed, but they are not a serious HPV infection. Skin wart HPV transmission is common but they are not considered highly contagious.

There are more than 30 strains of HPV that can also cause genital warts and these are considered highly contagious. HPV transmission of genital warts occurs during sexual intercourse or any contact with the genital or anal area of an infected person. Some people believe that they can't be exposed to HPV if they don't have penetration but indulge in sexual play; this is not the case.

You don't need to have sexual intercourse to become infected. HPV symptoms of genital warts can affect both men and women. They may occur on the penis, scrotum, anus or thighs in men and the vulva, vagina, cervix, anus or thighs in women. When warts occur in the mouth or throat, they are classified as genital warts if they resulted from sexual contact. The HPV strain that produces genital warts is spread by vaginal, oral or anal sexual intercourse. Using a condom helps but is only a partial protection.

There are 2 strains of HPV that are precursors to cervical cancer. These are also highly contagious and of great concern to most women. These strains do not have any symptoms; genital warts are not produced by the HPV strains that can cause cervical cancer. Remember though, it is possible to have multiple strains of HPV, so the absence of genital warts doesn't mean you are safe from the cancer-causing HPV.

Not everyone who has been infected with HPV strains that produce genital warts will get symptoms; some people won't see any symptoms for weeks, months or even years in some cases. The person infected with HPV is contagious whether they have symptoms or not. This factor alone adds to widespread HPV transmission as infected people continue with their sexual relationships, unaware that they are putting their partner/partners at risk.

If you are worried about catching HPV, your concerns are valid. There are several factors that can represent a greater risk of HPV transmission. These risk factors include:

  • Having multiple sex partners
  • Having sex with someone who has had multiple partners
  • Being sexually active from an early age
  • Being unaware that a sexual partner has HPV or other sexually transmitted infection
  • Regular use of alcohol or tobacco
  • Pregnancy
  • If you have a weak or compromised immune system
  • Having other viral infection at the time of contact.
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