All it took was one panicked text from my BFF to make me realize how little I knew about STDs and STIs. I was on the Amtrak train, blissfully zoning out to a bluesy Spotify playlist when an alarming message popped up on my phone screen: “OMG. I have HPV.” I immediately began Googling anything and everything about it: What is HPV? Can HPV be treated? Does HPV cause cancer? The truth was, I didn’t know what to say at first. How can you be helpful or reassuring when the embarrassing truth is that you don’t know anything about what they’re dealing with? Since then, I've made it my mission to learn a lot about HPV — and as they say — knowledge is power.
According to the American Sexual Health Association, 14 million new infections occur every year in America and an estimated 80 percent of sexually active people will contract HPV at some point in their lives. Given how common it is, it's definitely an STI worth knowing more about. So, what is it? HPV, which stands for human papillomavirus, is a sexually transmitted infection that can be spread via vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or intimate skin-to-skin contact. That last part is super important to note — so keep in mind that you can still get HPV from someone without ever having sex with them. In fact, Dr. Howard LeWine, Chief Medical Editor of Harvard Health Publishing, reports that you can get HPV from open mouth kissing. According to Planned Parenthood, there are 40 types of human papillomavirus that can spread through sexual contact. These are the types that can infect your genital area as well as your mouth and throat. There are many more types of HPV that are not sexually transmitted — such as common plantar warts on the feet.
How do you know if you have HPV? Unfortunately, the majority of people who have HPV don’t experience any symptoms, which is why it can easily go undetected for some time. Planned Parenthood reports that sometimes, people with HPV may get genital warts, which can be treated and even removed quite easily. The good news is, those warts don’t cause cancer, so if you do get them, that means you have what’s considered the “low-risk” type of HPV. According to Cleveland Clinic, these warts — which may be pinkish or red in color — can be very small, and often appear in groups of three or four. They often resemble tiny cauliflower, and while they may cause some itching or bleeding, typically aren't painful. If you observe warts like these, it's important to get checked out by your doctor, who can then diagnose HPV if that's the cause. The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases notes that these warts can also simply go away on their own without treatment, but still, just because they’ve disappeared doesn’t mean the virus has been completely cleared up.
Here’s the thing, though. According to Dr. Hunter Handsfield, Professor Emeritus of Medicine at the University of Washington Center for AIDS and STD, there can be a long delay in symptoms showing up after you’re initially exposed to HPV. In fact, the “incubation period” can last as long as a couple of months to a year or more, which means you can have it for a while without even knowing. Also, “high-risk” HPV is typically asymptomatic (meaning you won’t see any signs of the infection). According to Planned Parenthood, 13 types of HPV can cause cervical cancer, and one type can also lead to cancer of the vagina, vulva, throat, penis, and anus. Two types — HPV16 and HPV18 — are responsible for the majority of HPV-related cancers. The National Cancer Institute reports that high-risk HPVs cause 3 percent of all cancers in women, and 2 percent of all cancers in men within the U.S.
To be clear, just because you have high-risk HPV doesn’t mean you will definitely get cancer. However, it’s crucial to catch the HPV as early on as possible, because the sooner it’s identified, the sooner it can be treated before leading to more serious health issues, like infertility.
If you're a woman, you may find out that you have HPV during your pap test. That’s because the pap smear can reveal abnormalities on your cervix — and those can be a sign of HPV. Your doctor can also administer a specific test for high-risk types of HPV. This involves collecting a small number of cervical cells and sending them to a lab to test them for abnormalities. Your doctor can perform this HPV test at the same time as your pap or separately. Unfortunately, there is now way to test for high-risk HPV in the vulva, throat, penis, or anus yet.
It usually takes years for cancer to develop as a result of HPV, which is why getting regular pap tests (about every three years, depending on your age) is crucial. As the American Sexual Health Association reports, cervical cancer is entirely preventable — the key is to detect those abnormal cell changes as early as possible. For men, there's no test specifically designed to detect HPV, so it's usually identified through a visual inspection for warts or signs of cancer. However, most men with HPV have no symptoms or health problems as a result of the infection.
There is no known cure for HPV, but here's the good news: The majority of people who get it are able to recover with no persisting health problems as a result of the virus, according to Planned Parenthood. Better yet, there is a way to prevent HPV entirely: getting the vaccine. Cervarix, Gardasil, and Gardasil 9 can all protect you from two high-risk strains that are responsible for about 70 percent of cervical cancers, as well as other cancers, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Additionally, Gardasil prevents two other strains of HPV that are to blame for a whopping 90 percent of genital warts. And Gardasil 9 protects you from all four of those aforementioned strains, along with five other cancer-causing strains. Previously, Gardasil 9 was only approved for men and women at the age of 26 or younger. However, the FDA recently approved the vaccine to include men and women ages 27 to 45. You can get vaccinated by primary care doctor, OB/GYN, or at your local Planned Parenthood health center.
Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, an OB-GYN, tells Elite Daily that the best way to prevent an infection is by using condoms during sex. Remember, however, that HPV can be transmitted simply through skin-to-skin contact. (In fact, you can still get HPV by touching someone’s genital region, if you never have sex.) So while condoms can significantly decrease your risk of getting it, you’re not 100 percent protected.
“It is not uncommon to have a genital wart outside of the area covered by a condom — and that area can spread the virus,” Dr. Minkin explains.
Undoubtedly, one of the most nerve-wracking aspects of finding out you have an STI or STD is figuring out how to tell your partner. So, how do you know when it's necessary to alert them you have it?
“Most experts would recommend informing partners of currently active, untreated infections (such as overt warts, a newly abnormal pap smear),” Dr. Handsfield tells Elite Daily. “But only current partners, not past ones — and even current partners need not be informed once the warts or abnormal pap smear are gone. Also, many informed partners will choose to continue sex — the issue isn’t necessarily that sex be avoided, but that partners be aware of the issue so they can knowledgeably participate in decisions to proceed or not.”
Finding out you have HPV — or even just having a sneaking suspicion that you might — can be anxiety-inducing. But one of the most important things to keep in mind is that most sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their lives. Also, remember that even if you use a condom, it's still possible to get HPV, as it can be passed through skin-to-skin contact. Luckily, most infections will clear up naturally, and most of them do not lead to cancer. The best way to protect yourself from HPV is to get the vaccine. Also, be on the lookout for warts, and be diligent about getting regular pap tests. While using condoms may not completely eliminate the risk of HPV, it can certainly help a great deal — and the more you can do to protect yourself, the better.