Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
What is it?
Human Papillomavirus Infection, or HPV, is an STI virus that causes certain STDs, such as genital and anal cancers and warts. Some types of HPV can cause anal cancer. genital warts, cervical cancer, vulvar cancer, and vaginal cancer. There are over 100 types of HPV, and while some are relatively benign and the body can fight them off, some types can lead to health complications. Because there are so many types of HPV, it’s hard to screen for. Cervical cells can be tested for high-risk HPV strains, but otherwise there is no general test for HPV, which is why prevention is so important. Alongside chlamydia, HPV is the most common STI on college campuses. There are also some common myths surrounding HPV: that it’s no big deal (it can be), that there’s no rush to vaccinate preteens (there definitely is), or that you can’t get it if you don’t have a vagina (you can, it’s just less common).
How did I get it?
There are 14 million new HPV infections every year in the U.S., 50% of which occur in people 15-24 years old. In fact, without the vaccine, if you are sexually active, you’re almost guaranteed to contract HPV at some point. So exposure to HPV is actually very common, and unlike most STIs, condoms don’t fully protect against HPV, because the virus can affect areas of the body that condoms don’t cover, like the skin around genitals. You can contract HPV through sex acts: having oral sex, genital contact, anal sex, or using unprotected/unsanitized toys with someone who is infected. Since there are no signs or symptoms, other than the health complications that can arise from HPV, many people are carriers of HPV and don’t know it. Usually, an HPV infection will go away on its own, as the body successfully fights off the virus . Thankfully, in the past few years, there has been a huge increase in the number of children who have been vaccinated for HPV. The HPV vaccine is safe and effective, and is administered when kids are 11-12 years old, ideally before they begin any sexual activity. This vaccine protects against common strains of HPV as well as certain types of diseases, including cancers, that can arise from HPV infections. This is the best way to protect against HPV and the health complications it can cause. If you didn’t get vaccinated when you were a kid, get it now! The vaccine is especially recommended for: young men who plan to have sex with other men through age 26, young adults who are transgender through age 26, and young adults with immunocompromising conditions (including HIV) through age 26. Safety with others is especially important, considering the lack of HPV’s presenting signs and symptoms. Testing for high-risk strains in the cervix can be done during a routine Pap smear, but make sure to ask for the HPV test, as it is not regularly administered. This is not recommended or usually administered for people under 30 (https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm).
What are the symptoms?
There are no symptoms of HPV. Most people with HPV don’t know they are infected, and may never have symptoms or health complications. Some may learn they have HPV during the cervical cancer screening Pap smear test, and others may find out they have HPV if they develop genital warts or cancer from HPV.
What do I do when the test comes back positive?
If you know you have HPV, always use condoms or dental dams for any genital contact; however, because condoms and dental dams don’t work as well for HPV, consider abstinence until the infection clears, and encourage any partners to get the vaccine. There is no specific treatment to remove HPV from your body once you have it, so it’s important to monitor for abnormal cell growths; any abnormal cells can be removed and biopsied, and your healthcare provider might recommend a colposcopy, cryotherapy, or a procedure called LEEP that removes abnormal cells before they’re cancerous. If it’s severe, you should get regular Pap tests and/or HPV tests (Planned Parenthood offers these services!) If it is the type of HPV that causes genital warts (or, very uncommonly, throat warts), there are several methods to treat this: prescription ointments, doctor-applied ointments, and treatments to burn, freeze, or surgically remove warts. But again, in most cases, the infection will clear on its own, and won’t lead to health complications.