Expert Answers Factual Answers to Your Sexual Health Questions

Anonymous on August 11, 2011

My girlfriend has HPV...is there a test for men to find out if I have it too?

Hi. My girlfriend just found out that she has HPV. I’m fairly certain I have it, too, because we’ve had unprotected sex. She’s on the pill, so we figured that would be okay. She’s slept with two other people besides me and used condoms. She’s my first and only partner...so I’m wondering how I can know for sure if I have HPV and if there are any treatments for it. Also, will I have the same type she has and will it cause warts?

answered by Ruthann M. Cunningham, MD on August 11, 2011

Your question is excellent because it touches on a number of important points about human papillomavirus (HPV) transmission. For personalized feedback, I encourage you to talk with your doctor. However, I’m happy to offer some general thoughts for your consideration...  

First, you’re right: when someone has unprotected sex with an HPV-positive partner, the likelihood of transmission is high. Researchers estimate that more than 50% of sexually active people get HPV at least once in their lifetime.

The good news is that for most men with healthy immune systems, having HPV isn’t a big deal. The majority of men who have HPV don’t have any symptoms and their bodies clear out the disease within a few years. However, men who have HPV can pass it to their sexual partners...so practicing safer sex is always a good idea to reduce the risk of infecting potential future sexual partners.

Will you have the same type of HPV as your girlfriend? Probably. Partners usually share HPV types. That said, did you know that the term “HPV” is used to describe over 100 types of the human papillomavirus? About 40 of these types can infect the genital area and most won’t show many symptoms, if at all.

However, a handful of HPV types – notably HPV types 16 and 18 are called “high-risk” because they can cause cervical cancer and sometimes vaginal, vulvar and anal cancer in women. This is likely the type that your girlfriend’s HPV screening found. These strains can also cause the rare cancers of the penis, anus and even throat in men. HPV types 6 and 11 are called “low-risk” because they generally don’t cause cancer...but they can cause genital warts.

Unfortunately, there currently aren’t any reliable tests to screen for types of HPV in men...unless genital warts are visible. Although there are some good tests to screen for HPV in women, researchers haven’t yet found a good way to test for HPV in men. The exception is for men who practice anal receptive intercourse – in that case men can have an anal Pap test.

Or, if you have visible genital bumps, your doctor can examine the bumps and let you know if they’re genital warts (caused by certain types of HPV), a different infection or STD. If you do have genital warts, follow your doctor’s instructions for treatment – typically a skin ointment to help the warts clear up.

What about your girlfriend? She should follow her doctor’s instructions for regular Pap smears. In adolescents and young women, HPV infections usually clear up on their own within 8 to 24 months. However, 10-20% of people have an infection that doesn’t clear up, and those people are at higher risk of developing cancer...especially cervical cancer. The CDC recommends that she visit her doctor every year to test for any problems related to extended HPV infection, but her doctor may advise her to make a visit every six months.

You can learn more about about HPV in our HPV Overview.

Finally, I encourage you and your girlfriend to also consider STD testing. Getting tested for STDs especially the most common STDs including gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes, HIV and syphilis is the only way to know if you or your girlfriend have any other STD infections.

And remember, the pill doesn’t protect you or your partner from STDs. There’s always a chance that your girlfriend could have contracted an STD from a previous partner, even if they used protection. So it’s a good idea for both of you to play it safe and get tested. You can learn more about STD risks and testing in our Expert Guide to STD Basics.

I hope this helped you understand how people catch HPV and how it’s passed on to others. I wish you and your girlfriend the best of health!

Related info:

Ruthann M. Cunningham, MD

Dr. Cunningham is a member of the Analyte Physicans Group. She's also a member of the American College of Emergency Physicians, practicing at both Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital in Illinois and at Wheaton Franciscan All Saints Medical Center in Wisconsin. An ER physician since 2000, she regularly treats patients with STDs. Dr. Cunningham was educated at Wayne State University School of Medicine and completed her Emergency Medicine residency at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, IL.

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