A new study out of NYU Medical Center concluded that 69% of healthy American adults are infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV). Researchers suggest that may not be a bad thing.
Researchers analyzed data from the NIH Human Microbiome Project, studying tissue from 103 healthy men and women ranging from 18 – 80 years of age. They found that 61% of participants had HPV on the skin, 41% in the vagina, 30% in the mouth, and 17% in the gut. In fact, the virus was so pervasive that researchers suggest that the multiple viral strains may actually serve to keep one another in check, preventing others from wreaing havoc on the body (similar to the function of microbes in the intestinal tract). What's the punch line? You're probably going end up with HPV, but for the majority of people it's not a cause for concern.
There are more than 100 known strains of HPV, transmitted sexually and via skin to skin contact. Some of them are harmless or, as said above, may even be beneficial. They either remain dormant for years or your body easily fights it off like the common cold. Some of them are decidedly harmful. Two specific strains are connected to cervical, vaginal, penile, anal, and throat cancer. Fifteen strains are considered high risk for causing genital warts.
So what's your best bet for protecting yourself and your partners? Early vaccination of both men and women is a critical step for preventing the spread of the dangerous strains. There are two vaccines currently on the market. Cervarix prevents against the cancer causing strains. Gardasil also protects against the strains causing 90% of genital warts. If you're not vaccinated yet, you should do so now.* You're too old to get autism.**
Condoms do not offer complete protection against HPV (unless you're going full out Naked Gun, there will be skin exposed during intercourse), but they do help to reduce transmission. I don't know if you've heard, but they also prevent other sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Wear condoms.
*ETA: This has come up a few times in the comments so I thought I'd clarify it up top. The CDC guidelines in the US are that the vaccine should be given to men and women under the age of 26. Most insurances only cover the cost until this age. You can get the vaccine when you are older but will likely have to pay out of pocket.