You can skip the scary movie on your next date, thanks to this horrifying real-life stat: Nearly half of the men participating in a recent study had an active genital infection caused by the human papillomavirus. And of those contagious dudes, half had a type of the disease that's linked to mouth, throat, and cervical cancer. Before you panic and vow abstinence forever, know that it's impossible to say that 50-ish percent of the entire world's male population is infected, as these numbers stem from the study population only. (But, it's still alarming, to say the least.)
The study, published in JAMA Oncology, looked at genital swabs from nearly 2,000 men ages 18 to 59. Forty-five percent tested positive for the human papillomavirus, or HPV, one of the most common STDs. There are more than 100 types of HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but not all of them cause major health problems. Some people will get infected, experience no symptoms, and have the virus eventually resolve on its own. But not everyone is so lucky. In fact, HPV can be really scary—some strains can cause genital warts, a painful and unsightly symptom of the disease, and at least four types of HPV are thought to cause cancer, mainly of the cervix, vagina, vulva, anus, mouth, or throat.
It's these types of HPV that you should be most worried about—and for good reason. The researchers found that of the infected men, half tested positive for one of the cancer-causing strains. And because the infection can lie dormant, not showing symptoms for years, it's easy to get it from unprotected sex with someone who doesn't realize he has it. And that's any type of sex, including oral and anal. (Another worrisome stat? Unsafe sex is actually the number-one risk factor for illness and death in young women.)
There is a vaccine that protects against the most common types of HPV, including strains that are thought to cause cervical cancer. The vaccine is available to both females and males, but less than 10 percent of the guys in the study reported getting vaccinated. The best protection against HPV and other STDs, including the rapidly increasing antibiotic-resistant strains of both chlamydia and gonorrhea, is to use condoms. So always make sure your partner suits up.