This fall, we’re turning to our Friends at TheLala, the blog written by and for bright, adventurous college women, to lend some tips on how to deal with life whether you live on- or off-campus. This article on sexual health was penned by Cheyenne Krieger, a Lala contributor from the University of Cincinnati. 

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. We’ve all seen commercials warning people to get vaccinated to prevent contracting HPV, but so few actually know the ins and outs of this problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 79 million Americans are infected with HPV. In fact, it’s so common that most sexually active people will get at least one form of HPV during their lifetime. What does this all mean, though? Don’t worry, Lala loves. You have questions and we have the answers.

What does HPV actually mean?

Human papillomavirus is the term used when referring to more than 100 different types of sexually transmitted infections. A papilloma is a small wart-like growth on the skin. This does not mean that all strains of HPV result in warts, mind you. The virus can oftentimes go unrecognized because of the lack of symptoms. Some symptoms people may experience from the virus are genital warts, respiratory papillomatosis, and in more advanced stages, various forms of cancer. In short, HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that can surface in over a hundred different forms.

How is it spread?

HPV is spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex, with oral sex being the least common. Even if you have had sex with only one person, HPV can still be contracted. People can unknowingly infect others because they show no signs or symptoms of having HPV in the first case. Even scarier is the fact that you can develop symptoms years after your sexual experience, making it more difficult to pinpoint when you became infected.

How can we prevent it?

There are multiple ways to prevent contracting HPV. One way to avoid HPV is to be vaccinated. It’s recommended that all boys and girls be vaccinated between the ages of 11 and 12. If that ship has sailed, no worries. Catch-up vaccines are administered to males through the age of 21 and for females through the age of 26. The vaccinations are given over a six-month period, with one shot every two months.

Another incredibly simple way to avoid HPV is to use condoms or other forms of contraception each and every time you have sex. I understand there’re lots of reasons to forgo condoms – it feels better without them, it can slow down a passionate moment, they can become costly, etc. Whatever. Taking the necessary precautions will always be better than waking up with warts on your lady bits. Oh, and being in a monogamous relationship or abstinent doesn’t hurt either.

How can we test for it?

Testing for HPV isn’t as simple as testing something like whether or not you’re anemic. If you notice warts, go to your doctor and they will perform a biopsy to let you know your HPV status. Women can also be tested for HPV during routine pap smear exams. If it comes back abnormal, more tests will be done to determine whether or not cervical cancer has formed. HPV commonly arises as cervical cancer, so it’s insanely important to meet with your gyno for regular pap tests. In extreme cases, HPV can lead to an overwhelming possibility of cancers. When testing for those, the oncologist will determine whether or not it started from HPV. So, basically, there isn’t a one-stop shop for checking on the status of your HPV. If you notice something abnormal, go see your doctor and they’ll perform the necessary tests.

How can we treat it?

There is no treatment for the virus itself since it rears its ugly head in different ways. For genital warts, your doctor can prescribe different topical and oral prescriptions. For cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers, treatment will vary depending on the type and stage. Again, your doctor will be able to come up with the right treatment plan for you if it gets to one of those stages.

Girls, I get it. Sex is awesome and most of us are doing it – but you need to be safe about it. HPV is spread on a day-to-day basis. Luckily for us, there are ways to prevent and treat the infection. Hop in bed with as few or as many people as you like (slut shaming is ridiculous, so we won’t judge), but be smart with your choices.