anonymous on September 7, 2011

I have the kind of HPV that causes cervical cancer...will it hurt my husband?

Today I went to my gynecologist for a colposcopy and biopsy. She said I most likely have HPV...the kind that causes cancer. I feel devastated, dirty and ashamed. I’ve never been promiscuous. I’ve only had three sexual partners and two of them were husbands. With my other partner, we used condoms and that was over nine years ago in my early teens. Now I’m a married Mennonite woman with three children and I’m afraid to have sex with my husband because I’m afraid he’ll get HPV. Neither of us have any visible signs of warts. Should he get tested? How could this hurt him if he has it?

answered by Ruthann M. Cunningham, MD on September 7, 2011

 Thanks so much for trusting us with your important and sensitive question. First, let me assure you that there’s no reason to feel dirty or ashamed. I encourage you to talk with your doctor more about your diagnosis to learn more from a personal perspective. That said, I can help provide a little information about human papillomavirus (HPV) that may help relieve some of your worry.

The first thing to know about HPV is that it’s very common. In fact, a 2005 study published in the medical journal, The Lancet, estimates that more than 50% of people who are sexually active will get HPV at some point in their lives. It’s even possible to get HPV if you’ve only had one sexual partner in your life.

HPV is very easy to catch...even when using a condom. HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact and, unfortunately, while condoms greatly reduce the risk of transmission, they don’t cover the skin of the entire genital area. That means there’s always a chance of spreading a sexually transmitted infection ⎼ including HPVto a partner, even if you’re using protection.

Also, both men and women can have HPV for a long time and not have any symptoms. In other words, it’s probable that either you or your husband already had HPV when you got married...but neither of you knew you were infected. So it’s entirely possible that you caught the virus from a previous partner...or maybe your husband did.

There are many different types of HPV, including a type that causes genital warts and another type that can cause cancer. Your doctor seems to think you have the type that can cause cancer...and the results of your recent procedures will help your doctor make that conclusion.

That said, because the type of HPV that causes cancer is different from the one that causes genital warts, you probably won’t get genital warts...unless you’ve been exposed to both of these types of HPV.

Regarding the type of HPV that can cause only does so in the areas of the body that are infected with the virus. For example, the most common place where HPV can cause cancer is the cervix, between your vagina and your uterus.

If you do have the cancer-causing type of HPV, don’t assume you’ll actually get cancer. During your colposcopy, your doctor took a look at the cells around your cervix to see if they looked like they could become cancer. She also removed a small sample of the cells (a biopsy) to examine them even more closely. If your doctor finds cells that could become cancer, she’ll do another procedure to remove the bad cells so you don’t develop cancer.

Can your husband get tested for HPV? No. Unfortunately, there’s not yet a reliable HPV test for men. Although women can get tested for HPV with a Pap test or even an HPV test that looks for genetic material from HPV, your husband can’t get tested. So you’ll probably never know which one of you had HPV first, or if one of you has “cleared” the disease. (HPV isn’t curable, but it can go dormant.)

The good news for your husband is that men usually don’t have any symptoms from the type of HPV that causes cancer. In very few cases, men can sometimes get cancers of the penis, anus or throat from HPV...but, again, that’s unlikely. Also, even if your husband shares your HPV infection, he’ll likely never have symptoms.

In terms of your health, your doctor will be able to tell you more about next steps after the results of your biopsy and colposcopy come back. You may need another procedure to remove the bad cells, or you may not.

In the meantime, practice safer sex. Researchers are still studying this, but a 2004 article published by the World Health Organization explores the possibility that using condoms can actually help you get better from your HPV infection faster. Mainly, however, it makes sense to use protection in your situation to avoid the possibility of one of you “re-activating” the virus in the other person, where the virus might have cleared.

While I understand your anxiety, I hope this information has helped you better understand your options. For more detailed information about HPV ⎼ including risks, symptoms, treatment and prevention ⎼ please see our HPV Overview.

And, again, there’s no need to blame yourself or be concerned about your husband’s health. I wish you both good luck and good health.




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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