By Deborah Fields, BSc (Hons), PgDip, MCIPR
Over 100 types of the human papilloma virus (HPV) are transmitted from an infected person to another via the skin or through moist membrane linings such as in the vagina, anus, vulva, cervix, mouth, or throat.
An infection can occur in the body and eventually clear up on its own. However, in some cases of infection with particular types of HPV, it can lead to cancer if it enters cells in the body and begins to change the way they function, affecting either the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or ribonucleic acid (RNA).
Cancers that can develop include cervical cancer, anal cancer and head and neck cancers. According to the World Health Organization, in 2012, there were 528,000 new cases of cervical cancer globally.
It is the second most common female cancer in females aged between 15 and 44 years old. Globally, a huge number of people are infected by HPV each year.
About 79 million Americans alone are currently infected with HPV and about 14 million become infected every year.
Transmission via Sexual Activity
The virus can be on the skin near the sexual organs or the sexual organs themselves. A person can pass on the virus through vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
It only takes people to be sexually active once for this kind of transmission to happen.
Avoiding sexual contact is a way of reducing the chance of contracting an HPV infection.
HPV does not tend to affect people who have not yet been sexually active.
Among people who are sexually active, most will contract a type of the disease at some point during their lives. In terms of cervical cancer, 99% of cases reported in 2012 were thought to be due to genital infection.
Another way to reduce HPV transmission is to limit the number of sexual partners.
Having less sexual interaction reduces the risk of contracting the disease and also allows time for an HPV infection to leave the body.
A person may not know they have the infection as it often shows no physical signs. They can easily pass it on to a new partner.
A gap of eight months allows for an HPV infection to clear and thus minimize the chance of passing it on to a new partner.
Monogamy has a positive impact on transmission as the number of sexual partners is proportional to the risk of a person contracting an HPV infection.
Transmission via Kissing
The virus can also be contracted through open mouth kissing.
Genital warts can form on genital areas after a person is infected via sexual contact.
The warts can be removed from the body through different procedures but patients are advised to avoid sexual contact until the warts are healed.
After this, the patient should also be careful and use a condom for a few months afterwards to avoid any remaining HPV spreading to a partner.
When a person develops warts through an HPV infection on the foot or toe, they can pass on the infection with their bare feet.
Anyone with a wart is advised to cover their feet or wear shoes when in a public place with people who will not be wearing footwear such as at a swimming pool or gym.
The virus can also be spread if the person picks at the wart and does not wash their hands. This can result in them passing on HPV to others around them.
Reviewed by Susha Cheriyedath, MSc
Last Updated: Jun 13, 2016