Years ago, a woman in her early twenties wrote to me; she was completely freaked out. Her doctor had told her she had the human papillomavirus (HPV) and she was terrified about what it meant for her long-term health—and her relationship. I wish I could say this scenario was uncommon, but as a human sexuality professor, I've heard from dozens of scared, panicked women who don't have a clue about the most basic facts of HPV.
Worse, this total lack of awareness is what fuels the stigma around most STIs—and HPV is no exception. When many women who test positive for HPV work up the gumption to disclose their status to their partners, they're sometimes called "dirty" and told that HPV is their "fault." These same men think a positive result for HPV means their partner cheated on them—after all, they don't have HPV (or so they think), so how else could it have happened?
Well, I wish I could say to all of them, here's how: HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that there is. As the CDC puts it, "HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active people get it at some point in their lives." Yes, nearly all. But most people have no idea they have, or have had, HPV. You know who's least likely? Men. Know why?
Because there's no widespread HPV testing available. So, guys, if your female partner has HPV, it's just as likely that you passed it to her as it is that she passed it to you. And if you've both had oral, vaginal, or anal sex before having it with each other? Well, you've both probably already had HPV, anyway. A woman who has had an abnormal Pap test result—one that shows cervical changes due to HPV—may hear from her healthcare provider that she should get follow-up testing and possibly treatment. And if that happens, remember that your partner needs support, not blame. Keep the lines of communication—and kindness—open.
Other things worth knowing: Smoking can make it worse—by which I mean, it sticks around longer than it would if your body was in fighting shape. And, of course, there's a vaccine—available for people of all genders, but there are a few different kinds, and dosing schedules can vary based on your age, sex, and health history. (Women still get it more often than men do.)
So if you're a parent, try and talk with your kid's pediatrician about it. New CDC guidelines suggest that two doses—instead of the traditional three—work well if the first dose is started before your son or daughter's 15th birthday. Kids as young as 9 can get their first dose and it's generally recommended that they start by age 11 or 12. (The CDC has more info here.)
Older teens and young adults have probably already contracted at least one strain of HPV—but likely not all of the ones the vaccine can protect against. (One vaccine protects against as many as nine of the more troublesome strains.)
Regardless of whether or not you're vaccinated, however, HPV is not usually a major problem. That woman who was certain her diagnosis was a one-way ticket to cancer? It's not. While HPV is linked to various cancers of the cervix, anus, penis, vagina, vulva, and head/neck, most people will never develop an HPV-related cancer. If you're diagnosed, try to stay calm, ask your doctor questions, and follow their recommendations.
Remember: Most sexually active people get HPV. As the American Sexual Health Association and the CDC remind us, most people's bodies—about 90 percent—seem to clear the infection within a year or two, even without treatment. So relax, and stop the shame.
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