The 411 on HPV

It's a confusing virus, but Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, gives us the lowdown.

Blonde woman and mirror
(Image credit: GUY AROCH)

What it is:HPV, the human papillomavirus, is different from most sexually transmitted infections because it can clear up on its own. Whether you have a low- or high-risk strain, most cases are like the common cold: No medication is necessary.

What it does:The low-risk strains cause warts, genital and otherwise. The high-risk strains—detectable by an abnormal Pap test and a follow-up HPV test—have no symptoms but infect and change the cells in your cervix, which can lead to cancer.

How it spreads: Through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. The strains that affect the genitals are spread through genital contact.

What's up with the different strains?There are hundreds of strains of the disease; about 40 of them affect the genital area.

Is it preventable? Yes. Get the HPV vaccination if you're not yet sexually active or under 26 (when the vaccine is most effective, according to studies). Condoms won't totally prevent your chance of contracting the virus, but they can reduce your risk.

If you've been diagnosed with a high-risk strain:Don't panic. An abnormal Pap test and a positive HPV test do not mean you have cancer. Your doctor will track the changes of your cervical cells over time.