HPV is short for human papillomavirus. It is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the world, and it does not discriminate based on age or sexual experience. Over 20 million Americans have HPV and there are 6 million new cases of HPV each year. 1 in 4 teenage girls have an STD, and of these cases, HPV is the most common.
There are many misconceptions when it comes to HPV and this is understandable because there are so many different strains of the virus. Each strain comes with different risks and symptoms, and some appear to cause no symptoms at all. However, just because the virus is not evident does not mean that it is not causing harm to your body. It also does not mean that you can’t pass it on to your partner(s).
Here are the facts that can help keep you safe:
Not all HPV strains are created equal. There are many types of HPV, but it’s easier to break it down if you think of dividing them into two buckets. In one bucket, there are the strains that cause genital warts. In the other bucket, there are the strains that can cause cancer (including cervical cancer, oral cancer, anal cancer, and rarely, penile cancer).
If you have the types of HPV that cause warts, then you may develop genital warts, which are small firm bumps located in the genital or anal area. The cancer types of HPV are completely different from the wart types of HPV and cause different symptoms.
Women with this type of HPV will usually not have any symptoms, other than perhaps some spotting after sex or spotting between periods. However, they could have cell changes that can be found via a pap smear. Some types of this HPV can turn into cervical cancer over the course of many years if left untreated.
Of course, men can’t undergo pap smears, meaning they can carry cancer-causing strains of HPV without knowing it. They usually have no symptoms and there is no way to test for this in men. There is one exception: Men who have sex with men and practice anal-receptive intercourse can have anal pap smears to look for HPV-associated changes.
There is no cure for HPV, but there is a vaccine which can help protect young women from contracting certain strains of the virus. Vaccines such as Cervarix and Gardasil are still only geared towards girls and young women ages 9-26, but boys and young men are starting to be possible candidates for the vaccinations as well. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these vaccinations only protect against certain strains of the virus, and if you are already infected with HPV, you cannot receive the vaccine. Talk to your doctor to learn more and to find out if the vaccination is right for you.
Last but not least, remember that condoms, dental dams, and other safer sex measures cannot protect against the spread of HPV. HPV is spread via skin-on-skin contact, and there is no way to stop (or even see) the invisible cells which are shed during physical intimacy. So what can you do? Talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated, get regular pap smears (if you are a woman) or anal pap smears (if you are a man who engages in anal–receptive sex), commit to monogamy and safer sex, and stay involved in your sexual health.