Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an infection caused by a virus that is transmitted sexually or through skin-to-skin contact. There are approximately 200 types of HPV, and a person can contract more than one type in their lifetime. The infection is very common, approximately 75% of sexually active Canadians will contract an HPV infection in their lifetime. The symptoms and potential complications depend on the type of HPV contracted.
In Quebec, you can get the HPV vaccine for free at school in two doses: the first one in Grade 4 and the second one in Secondary 3. The vaccine is up to 90% effective.
HPV is transmitted through unprotected sex with an infected person (with or without symptoms). It can be transmitted while engaging in:
- Oral sex (fellatio, cunnilingus, anilingus)
- Vaginal penetration (penis penetrating the vagina)
- Anal penetration (penis penetrating the anus)
- Sharing sex toys
- Intimate skin-to-skin contact (e.g., rubbing genitals)
- Less frequently, masturbating or kissing an infected person
A mother can also pass the infection on to her baby during childbirth.
You can get HPV many times throughout your life.
In most cases, HPV does not cause symptoms. Many people can spread it without knowing it. Symptoms depend on the type of HPV a person has. Most types do not cause any health risks, and they go away without treatment. Other types of HPV, however, can cause warts to develop, and some can even develop into cancer.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, an infected person who has symptoms may see the following signs:
- Some types of HPV infections cause warts on the genitals, on the anus, or sometimes in the throat. They can be very hard to see and can appear several years after a person contracts the virus. Warts are not dangerous to your health and usually go away on their own.
- Some HPV infections can lead to precancerous lesions, cervical cancer, and other types of cancer.
When in doubt, contact Info-Santé (811) or get tested.
Testing and treatment 🔍
Testing can be done through a visual examination by a healthcare professional if you have warts. As infected people most often do not have symptoms, it is important that people with a vagina undergo regular cervical cancer screening (a Pap test or HPV test). Unfortunately, there is no equivalent test for people who have a penis.
There is currently no cure for HPV, but a healthcare professional can offer treatments to make the warts disappear. However, even if they disappear, you can still be infected with the virus. This means that the warts can come back and you can pass the virus on to your partner.
The best way to prevent HPV transmission is to get vaccinated and have regular Pap tests. Be sure to use condoms and dental dams during sex, even though you can still get HPV from contact with an uncovered area. Condoms nevertheless still limit your chances of contracting HPV, and protect you from other STBBIs. Also ask your partners whether they have been vaccinated and have been tested recently.