THE INS AND OUTS OF HPV

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WHAT IS IT?

HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, is a group of more than 150 related viruses. Because there are so many different-yet-related viruses, each one is given a number (e.g HPV 16). This is called its HPV type. According to the CDC, HPV is named for the warts (papillomas) some HPV types can cause and is the most common sexually transmitted disease; 80% of people will get an HPV infection in their lifetime. #dang

IS IT CONTAGIOUS?

Sure is. HPV is so rampant because it is not only contagious via blood and body fluids, but from intimate skin-to-skin contact as well. Plus, it can be passed on even when no signs or symptoms are present.  Sometimes, symptoms don’t show up until years later, so it is hard to know when you first became infected, and other times, symptoms never surface at all (so you may not even know you have it!). #helpful And for those who do know they are infected, there is a lot of shame, as well as myths and taboos around the subject, which makes it difficult to share openly with partners.

According to the American Cancer Society, You DO NOT get HPV from:

  • Toilet seats
  • Hugging or holding hands
  • Swimming in pools or hot tubs
  • Sharing food or utensils
  • Being unclean
     

IS IT DANGEROUS?

In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. But some HPV types can lead to genital warts or cancer of the mouth, throat, anus, penis, cervix, vagina, and vulva. HPV is usually the cause of cervical dysplasia. (For more on cervical dysplasia, see our article on CD here.)

HOW DO I KNOW IF I HAVE IT?

The most common outward sign is genital warts.  But, many people don’t realize they have HPV because there are no symptoms. This is why pap smears are crucial-- to check for any abnormalities on the cervix which can indicate whether HPV and/or cervical dysplasia are present. Because HPV is so common, most gynecologists won’t even test for HPV if you are under 30 unless a pap comes back abnormal.

Currently, a clinical HPV test for those without a cervix does not exist, so self-exams are important.  There is also no test for HPV on the mouth or throat.

HOW TO PREVENT AGAINST IT:

  • Use protection!
  • Talk to your partners about their sexual health before engaging in activities
  • Self-check for warts
  • HPV vaccine (recommended by the CDC between the ages 9-26 depending upon biological sex, and exposure. Check their site for specifics.)

A Note on the Vaccine: 

All three licensed HPV vaccines protect against types 16 and 18, which cause the majority of cervical cancers across racial/ethnic groups. It does not protect against all strains. Like all vaccines, there can be side effects (though the most common are mild) so always discuss with your practitioner to find the best option for you.  Many health insurances will cover the series of vaccines. For those who don’t have insurance and cost is an issue, check out the Vaccines for Children Program, a federally funded program to protect kids up to 18 years old.biological sex, and exposure. Check their site for specifics.)

  

WHAT IF I HAVE IT?

We know there can be a lot of shame around STIs but try to remember that being exposed to this virus is not a reflection of your character! And it is extremely common. Always use protection and talk to your partner/s as necessary.

With certain strains, cervical cancer is your biggest risk so remember to get those paps regularly!

According to the American Cancer Society, if you have a cervix and are between the ages of 21-29, you should have a Pap test every 3 years to test for cervical cancer and pre-cancers, but the HPV test is not recommended because HPV is so common during this time that it is not helpful to test for. If an abnormal pap is returned, then a HPV test is warranted. If you have a cervix and are over 30 years old, it’s recommended to get a HPV test + Pap test (co-testing) every 5 years.  The American Cancer Society says that it’s also OK to continue just to have Pap tests every 3 years and test for HPV if a test comes back abnormally, but co-testing is preferred.

Those who are HIV positive or who have been diagnosed or treated for a cervical cancer or pre-cancer should talk to their health care providers about how often they should be tested for cervical cancer and what tests should be used.

THE SILVER LINING

Let’s keep up consistent, preventative measures, and talk more openly about HPV to bust the shame that surrounds it! And, cell changes in the cervix happen very slowly… it usually takes more than 10 years for cell changes to become cancer. So building a healthy relationship with testing is key.

FYI: Most insurances fully cover pap smears and some, HPV testing.  If you don’t have insurance, both pap smears and HPV test run between $50-200. Call around and ask for all associated costs upfront, including lab work.


Written By: Gretchen Decker, CA

**Disclaimer** This post is intended as informational only, and should not be treated as medical advice.