What Exactly is HPV?

Women's Health | | Natasha Weiss
4 min read

HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, seems to be the elusive cousin of the STI conversation. Widely prevalent, and yet totally misunderstood. Conversations about HPV center around immunization, cervical cancer, and everyone’s favorite- pap smears. Yet ask anyone about it, and usually their knowledge around HPV is murky.

We’re here to clear up the confusion of some common myths and questions regarding HPV.

There are Different Strains: True

HPV is actually a group of more than 100 related viruses. Of those, about 30 strains affect the genitals and anus. About 13 of those are considered high risk, as they can lead to certain types of cancer.

You Don’t Always Show Symptoms: True

An estimated 90% of women with HPV will never show symptoms, and the virus will clear up on its own in about two years.

Everyone Has HPV: False

While it’s not true that everyone has HPV, about 80% of sexually active people will have it at some point in their lives, but it typically clears up on its own.

You Have to Have Sex to Contract HPV: No

This depends on your definition of sex. HPV is spread by skin to skin contact of the genitals, as opposed to the exchange of bodily fluids. While genital strains of HPV are most commonly spread during vaginal and anal sex, it can be spread through oral sex as well.

Men Don’t Show Symptoms: False

Men can develop genital warts from HPV around their penis, scrotum, and anus. The confusion comes from them not showing symptoms of the strains of HPV that cause cellular changes- which can lead to cancer.

There has also been a link between HPV and uncommon cancers in men like penile, anal, head, and neck.

While there is currently no approved HPV test for men, pap tests are available for those with a greater risk of anal cancer. 

Genital Warts Leads to Cancer: False

While genital warts can be entirely uncomfortable, the strains of HPV that cause them are different than those that cause cancer. They do however, put you at risk for other STIs.

HPV Changes the Cervix: True

Certain strains of HPV can cause cervical dysplasia, or abnormal changes to cervical cells, which can potentially lead to cancer.

HPV is Harmless: False

While many people can go their whole lives without showing symptoms of HPV, certain types of it cause cervical cancer- the fourth most common cancer in women. It can also cause other cancers in the throat, anus, vulva, and vagina. As well as lesions to the genitals, mouth, and upper respiratory tract.

Certain People are More Likely to be Affected: True

Those with a compromised immune system, like from HIV or AIDS or more likely to contract HPV. Open wounds and punctured skin can increase someone’s risk of contracting strains of HPV that cause common warts.

HPV Has Greater Risks in Certain Areas of The World: True

People in low and middle income countries with less access to sexual healthcare services are more likely to experience the harmful effects of HPV. About 85% of cases of cervical cancer, and 90% of deaths from it occur in these populations.

The Body Heals HPV: True and False

Typically, the body clears up HPV on its own. Sometimes it can lead to genital warts, cellular changes, and certain kinds of cancers. 

HPV is Treatable: False

While the virus itself isn’t treatable, the effects of it are. Genital warts, precancerous cervical cells, and cancers caused by HPV are all treatable.

Now that we have a better understanding about what HPV is, let’s talk about how to protect yourself.

The Shot

The three approved vaccinations; Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix prevent infections of HPV types 16 and 18. These two types are responsabile for about 70% of cases of cervical cancer.

The vaccination includes two to three rounds of shots, depending on the age the patient starts them, which is usually around eleven, but as old as twenty-six. This means someone could potentially be infected with HPV between the seperate shots, or with a strain that the vaccinations don’t protect against. These vaccinations may also come with potential risks.

Know Your Status

We said it before, and we’ll say it again- get your pap smears! Cervical screenings are relatively simple, and can give you vital information regarding your health and HPV status.

Glove it Up

Barrier methods of birth control like diaphragms and condoms can help protect you against HPV. They are not 100% effective, so make sure to still get routine screenings

Talk About It

Talk to your sexual partners about your status, and to your friends about how HPV may affect them. Better yet, share this article, and spread the word about HPV!

Don’t Worry

Like we mentioned, HPV typically clears up on its own. If you do contract a strain with adverse effects, it’s not your fault, or something to be ashamed of. The stigma of STIs is usually worse than the reality!

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