"HPV really is harmless to the vast majority of people," says H. Hunter Handsfield, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle and a nationally recognized STD expert. "It's like having staph or strep on our skins," he says, "pretty universal, unavoidable, and usually not harmful." But several strains can lead to cervical cancer, so all women should have yearly Pap smears to screen for cancerous changes.
Gardasil, the HPV vaccine introduced in 2006, protects against the two strains of the virus that are most likely to cause cancer, as well as the two strains of the virus that are the culprits in most cases of genital warts.
Using condoms or other latex or plastic barriers can help prevent HPV infection, although they are not completely effective because the virus can be present on areas of the skin not covered by the latex. The best prevention available, other than abstinence, is believed to be the HPV vaccine.