The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections affecting millions of people every year. But how much do you really know about it? Although it isn’t acutely harmful like some other STIs, HPV is still something to take seriously.
- Most sexually active people contract it. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), almost all men and women will be exposed to and contract a strain of HPV at some point in their lifetimes. In fact, almost 80 million Americans alone are infected currently, with 14 million more people being infected each year. The US population is just over 320 million, so you can see how widespread it actually is —and that’s only in the US. It’s the most common sexually transmitted disease, hence the common cold comparisons. Pretty much everyone will get it in some form or another at some point in their lives.
- There’s no way to treat the virus. Unfortunately, doctors can’t knock HPV out with medication because it’s a virus. Like a cold or the flu, it just has to run its course. While HPV goes away (or at least dormant) in most cases, the “course” is pretty much perpetual in others. However, you CAN treat symptoms, which typically show up as warts or abnormal cells. The problem is that HPV is virtually undetectable and an infected individual may never present with any symptoms.
- HPV and the herpes virus are not the same. If you thought that herpes—AKA HSV—and HPV were the same, you should know that they’re completely different infections. Although both infections may present with genital warts or warts on parts of your body like hands, feet or mouth, HPV is much more common than herpes.
- It’s spread via skin, not fluid. HPV is pretty much unavoidable. Besides the fact that it’s spread via skin and not fluid, there are 100 different strains of the virus out there. Plus, even if you practice the safest sex and always use a condom, chances are pretty high that you’ll contract it anyway.
- High-risk strains may lead to cervical cancer. Many women find out that they’re infected when their gynecologist finds abnormal cells during a pap smear of their cervix. In cases where you have an abnormal result, your doctor will administer a series of additional tests including a colposcopy and possible biopsy to see if the cells are precancerous. If they are, usually your doctor can freeze them off and you just require monitoring going forward. However, remember that if you’re over the age of 30 and you have HPV, your chances of developing cervical cancer rise. The good news is that if you get regular check-ups and monitor abnormal cells, cervical cancer is often preventable. Get your check-ups!
- HPV can lead to other cancers. Cancers of the penis, anus, neck, and throat are also caused by HPV infections so yes, even men can get cancer from the infection. Remember, HPV spreads via the skin, so high-risk strains that are frequently exposed to vulnerable parts of the body repeatedly have the potential to cause problems. If you feel or see warts in or on parts of your body, don’t just try to handle it yourself. Go to your doctor and get a diagnosis!
- You should consider vaccinations for the highest-risk strains. Currently, there are two vaccinations for two of the strains of HPV that lead to cancer and also cause genital warts. The vaccinations go by the brand names called Cervarix and Gardasil. Both vaccinations protect against the strains that cause just about 70% of all cervical cancer and can be administered to females. Gardasil also protects against strains associated with genital warts and can be administered to males. These vaccinations are recommended for adolescents, but you can still get them if you’re a woman under 26 or a man under 21 and you’ve either never had the vaccine or haven’t completed the series. This can vary based on an individual’s circumstances but generally speaking, these are the timelines doctors use.
- You can still get vaccinated even if you have an infection. If you have had an abnormal pap before or if you’ve tested positive for HPV, you might ask about getting vaccinated anyway to protect you from the higher risk strains. Remember, HPV has over 100 strains. The strain you contracted might not be the most harmful, so don’t feel like you’re completely SOL if you find out that you do have an infection.
- Science can’t test men for HPV. Yep, that’s right. So what do you do? Talk to your doctor about your options for testing yourself because women can be tested. Wear condoms. Get vaccinated and encourage the women and girls in your life to get vaccinated! Be judicious about who you sleep with but also know that when it comes to the human papillomavirus, you’re probably going to be exposed to it at some point in your life.