With all the trouble with the Gardasil vaccination (including it not working so well for black women and it not being allotted to those over the age of 26), we’ve been hearing a lot about HPV in the news lately. But just what is this STD and what will happen if you, like over half of sexually-active American adults, are infected with it?
What is HPV?
HPV stands for human papillomavirus. This is kind of a catch all name for a large group of viruses that sometimes cause genital warts in humans. There are over 100 different strains of HPV out there– which could explain why over half of the United States’ sexually active population are infected with some type of HPV! It is alarmingly prevalent, but most do not develop symptoms of any sort.
HPV is a good example against a common STD myth. Many people believe that you have to have sex with a lot of people before you could possibly catch an STD. But since HPV is so prevalent, it reminds us that you only need to have sex with a single infected person.
The good news is that most forms of HPV are both asymptomatic and clear up on their own within about two years. The bad news is that some forms of HPV can cause genital warts, or can even cause life-threatening forms of cancer.
What are genital warts?
Genital warts are caused by HPV. Not every type of HPV cause genital warts. Also, these warts can not only affect your genitals (vulva, vagina, cervix, and penis) but also your anus and even your throat.
These warts manifest as small, cauliflower-shaped bumps on the affected area. Sometimes, they can be painful.
Genital warts are most commonly caused by HPV 6 and HPV 11. They can be treated with surgery, freezing them off, or through medication. However, treatment will not always ensure that they won’t be passed along to future partners. In fact, more often than not, these warts come back after treatment and may have to be treated multiple times.
There is some good news, though: the types of HPV that cause genital warts are not the same as those types of HPV that cause cancer.
Wait, HPV causes cancer?
Some types do. HPV is best known for causing cervical cancer, but it can also cause cancer of the anus and the throat. Because of this, it’s very important to continue to wear protection even for oral or anal sex. Read about our favorite condoms for anal sex, like the Kimono MicroThin.
Yes. This is called oropharyngeal cancer and it can affect middle part of the throat, also called the pharynx. HPV is not the only way to get oropharyngeal cancer and it’s not an incredibly common way to contract it, but it does happen.
Apart from oropharyngeal cancer, giving unprotected oral sex to someone with HPV can also result in Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatisis (RRP). This is caused by HPV 6 and 11 and can cause tumors to grow in the air passages that lead to the lungs. This type of HPV can even be passed from a mother to child during birth, so it’s especially important to know if you’re infected if you’re pregnant!
HPV is considered a skin-to-skin STD, meaning that it doesn’t need fluids to spread (unlike other diseases, like HIV, chlamydia, etc). This means that not only can they be spread via sexual intercourse, but they can also spread during less invasive activities, like dry humping or manual sex.
How do I know if I’m infected?
Because most forms of HPV are asymptomatic, it can be hard to know if you are infected or not. If you suspect that you have genital warts, it’s best to see a doctor to check for sure that it isn’t herpes, or some other non-STD infection.
For female-bodied people, you’ll be tested during your yearly pap smear for those types of HPV which can lead to cervical cancer. They do not test for anal or oropharynx cancer though. If you think you are showing symptoms of either, it’s important to notify your doctor immediately.
Also, there is currently no HPV test available for male-bodied people. If this is you and you think you may have been infected, either by noticing symptoms or because a former female partner tells you that she has been diagnosed, it’s very important to see your doctor, who can help you plan your next steps.
What do I need to do if I am infected?
The first thing to do is to speak with your doctor. They will be able to diagnose which strain you are infected with. There aren’t many treatment options available for dealing with HPV. Genital warts can be treated using topical medication, freezing, or surgery, although they often come back and have to be re-treated. Cervical cancer can be curable if it’s treated early enough.
However, for the virus itself, there is not cure.
After you’re properly diagnosed, you will need to notify past and current partners. It may be hard to open up that line of conversation with someone, but it may help you discover how you were infected, and that partner may have more information about the infection, such as exactly what strain of HPV it is and if there will be complications from it.
How can I protect myself if I am not infected?
The surest way to protect yourself is through the HPV vaccine, most commonly known as Gardasil. Gardasil can help men and women, boys and girls. However, there are a couple big caveats which we mentioned above– it does not treat all forms of HPV, and it is not given to people over the age of 26.
In fact, Gardasil only prevents the four types of HPV– two that commonly cause cervical cancer (16 and 18), and two that commonly cause genital warts (6 and 11). It doesn’t prevent all strains which cause cancer, and in fact, it has been shown to not be effective for black women, since they typically develop different strains of cervical cancer-causing HPV.
The number one way to prevent contracting HPV? Abstinence. But, since we know that’s not a realistic option for most people, you can still protect yourself using condoms.
Don’t rely on just condoms though. Condoms don’t cover all of a man’s genitalia– they may cover the entire penis, but they won’t cover the testicles or the flesh around the genitals from coming in contact with vaginal fluid. The Scroguard was recently proposed as an alternative– it looks like a latex speedo with an opening for a latex-covered condom, like the Caution Wear Grande, to go through. The effectiveness of it, however, is uncertain.
The female condom, also known as the FC2, can be a big help in preventing the spread of HPV as well since the outside ring covers the lips of the vulva to prevent the spread of juices. It’s not a perfect fix, but many have found that it works well.