Who Wants (has) HPV? Your most frequently asked questions.
Ok.. So no one really wants HPV. But 80% of the population has it. And the vast majority of sexually active individuals will contract it.
It's not only the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in teens and adults, but it's also one of the most talked about STI's in pop culture.
“All adventurous girls do”-Girls
“If you’ve had sex after the year 1991, then you do have HPV”- Rough Night
“A lot of men don’t know that they have HPV, because it’s undetectable in men. It’s really fucked up. HPV is a ghost that lives inside men’s bodies and says “Boo!” in women’s bodies.”- Ali Wong
“Of course I have HPV. I'd almost be embarrassed not to have HPV at this point. But now, I don't have the three strains that can cause cervical cancer.”- Broad City
Women in comedy, like Amy Schumer, Ali Wong, or Lena Dunham, talk about HPV to help normalize an experience that has often left women feeling isolated, embarrassed, anxious or like their future is doomed. Although HPV is incredibly common, and talking about it more openly reduces the stigma, the fear behind the diagnosis is real and learning what you can do about it may help with some of the anxiety.
Below I will answer some of your most frequently asked questions about HPV.
And if you're anything like me and you hate fact sheets and would prefer to have a conversation with a live human- send me a message! We can discuss your personal and unique questions. Ok, carry on.
1. What is HPV?
HPV stands for Human Papilloma Virus. It is a virus that affects the skin and mucous membranes and can cause non-genital warts, genital warts or certain types of cancers in men and women.
HPV can be found...everywhere. In your mouth, fingernails (yes, fingernails!), and genitalia. It can be spread through skin to skin contact or through genital contact.
The type of HPV covered in this post is on low risk (genital wart causing) and high risk (cancer causing) HPV.
There are around 100 (and counting) strains of HPV!
There are 12 low-risk HPV strains that cause genital warts and 15 high risk strains that make men and women more susceptible to throat, cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile, and anal cancer.
2. How do you get HPV?
HPV is mainly transmitted through sexual contact. Condoms may help lower your risk of contracting HPV, but because condoms don't cover all of the things you can still get HPV while using them. You can get HPV from having one sexual partner or multiple.
3. Can I get rid of HPV?
Yes, for both low and high risk HPV. HPV can be suppressed or eliminated by the body. Most people in their 20s with a robust immune system will be able to rid themselves of the virus. But, some high risk HPV infections can persist and lead to certain types of cancer if left untreated.
Moral of the story: don't smoke, protect your immune system, and see your provider regularly. The healthier you are the more likely you will be able to clear it on your own.
4. Do I need to tell my partner I have HPV?
This decision is ultimately yours to make. It's impossible to know how and when you got HPV as it can lay dormant in your body for months or years before showing up. If you are with a male partner there is no way for him to get tested as there isn't a male HPV test on the market.
5. How is HPV treated?
Low risk (genital wart causing) HPV can be treated with gels, creams or lasers.
High risk HPV is tested and monitored with Pap smears and Colposcopy (aka cervical biopsy). There is no cure for HPV only monitoring and treatment of abnormal cells.
At age 21 you should start getting Pap smears to check for abnormal cells. If your Pap smear shows abnormal cell growth you should be checked for HPV. If you have high risk HPV you may need a colposcopy and/or LEEP ( a procedure to remove part of the cervix that has abnormal cell growth).
Why not just check HPV status instead of looking for abnormal cells? Wouldn't that be a better use of resources since virtually all cervical cancers are caused by HPV? Good question. We're working on it. Pap smear and HPV guidelines might be changing in the near future. Stay posted!
6. Will HPV affect my baby? Or my ability to get pregnant?
Low risk HPV (Genital warts) and high risk HPV (cervical cancer causing) strains can be transmitted to your baby, but the risk is very low and considered a rare event.
HPV by itself does not have an impact on fertility.
If you've had a LEEP (a procedure to remove part of the cervix with abnormal cell growth) it may put you at higher risk for pregnancy complications like preterm labor or having a low birth weight infant. But, most women have no complications at all.
7. Can I get multiple strains of HPV?
Yes, you can get multiple strains of HPV. Some believe HPV strains works "cooperatively" with other strains making it more likely to have co-infections.
8. If I have high risk HPV will I develop cervical cancer?
HPV 16 and 18 are responsible for 70% of cervical cancer cases. HPV accounts for 5% of all cancers worldwide. HPV is responsible for 3% of all cancer cases in women and 2% in men in the United States.
9. Can men be tested for HPV?
No! There is currently no HPV status test for men on the market. And most men don't have symptoms of HPV making it near impossible to know they have it.
10. What can I do to prevent HPV?
There's a vaccine! Gardasil vaccine can lower your risk of acquiring genital warts, cervical, vaginal and anal cancer. It's best to get the vaccine before becoming sexually active.
*The most important tangent you'll ever read*
If we are going to talk about Gardasil we also must mention how HPV was discovered. An African American woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks developed cervical cancer the 50s. Her cells were biopsied and used for research by Johns Hopkins Hospital without her or her family's knowledge or consent. Her cells, unlike any other, never died. Because of this scientist were able to study them and identify HPV as the cause of cervical cancer.
Her cells became the first immortalized cell line and have been used to create vaccines (Gardasil, Polio); they're the first cells to ever be cloned, they helped map the human genome and gave way to a deeper understanding of how HIV, Herpes, Zika, measles, and mumps function. Thank you, Henrietta Lacks. We owe her and her family. Big time.