You’ve heard of HPV, formally known as Human Papillomavirus, but how much do you really know about it? There’s a lot of hearsay, half-truths, and stigma that surround this very common sexually transmitted infection. While it is a complicated health issue that presents itself in various ways, here are the basics that you should understand:
1. HPV is extremely common.
In fact, it is estimated that 80% or more of the population contract HPV at least once in their lifetime. Researchers even believe that any sexually active person will most likely get it at some point. Often the virus clears without the infected subject even realizing they have it. This is part of the reason that the STI is so common – it is spread easily without the knowledge of either sexual partner involved.
2. Both men and women can contract HPV.
The common misconception that only women carry HPV is likely born from the fact that there is currently no diagnostic test that can determine if a man is infected. Because the virus can present at any time, the only way a woman can know who gave her the STI is if she has only made skin-to-skin genital contact with one partner. It is so easily spread that pretty much anyone can get the virus.
3. Most people never develop symptoms.
While there are ways the virus presents itself in a physically apparent manner, such as the appearance of genital warts, there are usually no symptoms. Serious health problems can develop, such as cervical or other forms of cancer, but approximately 90% of cases are cleared from the body by the immune system without the person ever knowing it was there.
4. STD testing means nothing when it comes to HPV.
Like I said, it isn’t even possible to test a man for HPV. Routine STD testing for women doesn’t always include HPV either. In fact, many doctors may not test specifically for the STI unless the patient has an abnormal Pap smear. Because the virus usually clears from the body without any symptoms, some feel that the test causes unnecessary distress to the patient.
5. Not all strains of HPV cause cancer.
Yes, 99% of cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV, so you need to be knowledgeable about what’s going on if you do find out you contracted it. Cancerous cells in the cervix are usually discovered when a Pap smear result comes back abnormal, in which case your doctor will conduct additional testing to determine what is going on. An irregular Pap does not automatically mean that you have cancerous cells. All that being said, only a few of the HPV strains result in cancer. Most are not harmful in this way.
6. Not all strains of HPV cause genital warts.
In fact, there are only a couple of strains that present in the form of genital warts. If you get them, this is no reflection on you and your sexual history. You were just unlucky and got a more physically apparent strain from whoever spread the virus to you. It does not mean that you are gross or dirty—you caught a bad break. In good news, the strains that cause genital warts do not cause cancer.
7. Your immune system will usually clear the virus out of your body on its own.
If you have a healthy system that is not impaired and you take good care of yourself, your HPV will most likely be gone within two years. Some symptoms may recur during that time, such as genital warts, but they should become less frequent with time. Sometimes the virus does remain in your system, however, and may present itself if the immune system is weakened.
8. There is no known cure for HPV.
As of now, HPV cannot be treated or cured by medical professionals, merely diagnosed and determined to be a strain that does or does not create cancerous cells. This is unfortunate, especially as it is so common and widespread. The virus is still poorly understood and has so many different strains that no cure has yet been developed.
9. You can contract HPV without ever having sex.
Even if you never engage in actual intercourse, you are still at risk for HPV because it is spread through skin-to-skin contact. If any infected area touches your skin, you may still get the virus. HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom and therefore can be spread by other intimate physical activity. The only sure way to keep from getting HPV is to abstain from all intimate skin-to-skin contact.
10. HPV can be transmitted to the mouth or throat via oral sex.
Unfortunately, you may contract HPV orally by performing oral sex on an infected individual. This is a serious matter that can result in oral or throat cancer if they carry certain strains of the virus. Many people, even those who know some of the basic information about HPV, are not aware of this fact, making it even more of a potentially dangerous health threat.
11. There is a vaccine, but it does not protect against all strains of HPV.
It is a good idea to get vaccinated to help protect yourself, particularly if you are still fairly young and have not tested positive for HPV as of yet. The vaccine can help prevent cervical cancer and genital warts. Unfortunately, it only protects against nine strains of the virus and does not have the ability to sterilize those who already carry HPV in their system.
12. The vaccine is most effective when you are young.
The CDC recommends vaccination as early as 11 or 12 years of age, as the younger you are, the more likely you have not been sexually active and exposed to the virus. The vaccine does not neutralize HPV in those already infected. Though it is best to get the vaccine before your early 20s, there is still a benefit to getting it afterward, particularly in those at higher risk of contracting cervical or anal cancer.
13. Even if you do get the vaccine, you should continue getting regular Pap smears.
Because the vaccine does not protect against all strains that cause cervical cancer, regular screenings are still essential. You may also have been infected before getting the treatment. The vaccine currently available in the United States is Gardasil 9, which protects against nine strains of the virus, as the name suggests. Two of those cause genital warts and the remaining seven cause cervical cancer. Keep yourself safe by continuing your normal gynecological visits regardless.