How to Tell a Partner About HPV
My question is: How do I explain this
situation to my new friend before we engage intimately without causing too much
anxiety on his part? Please advise.
As I've mentioned in
previous columns, HPV (human papillomavirus) is one of the topics I receive the
most questions about. HPV is frustrating both because our knowledge about it is
changing rapidly and because testing and treatment for the virus are not as
cut-and-dried as they are for other sexually transmitted infections.
The key to discussing an
HPV with a new sexual partner hinges on the fact that for most people HPV
infection is completely benign. The majority of the population will be infected
with HPV at some point in their lives—it's estimated that about 75% of people
between the ages of 15 and 49 have had an HPV infection. So, it's likely that
your new friend has already been exposed to HPV, whether he knows it or not.
While some forms of HPV can cause genital warts and others may lead to cervical
cancer, most people will naturally clear the virus from their bodies over time
without any harmful effects.
Men, especially, are often
silent carriers of the virus—so much so that there are no standard HPV tests
that are performed for men the way Pap smears are performed for women. Although
HPV has been linked to cancers of the throat, anus and penis, these cancers are
very rare in men, far less common than cervical cancer (also linked to HPV) is
Doctors carefully watch
for women over 30 who show signs of HPV infection, because these women fall
into the small group of people whose body's defenses have not naturally
eliminated the virus over the course of a few years. This group of women is at
higher risk for cervical cancer, which is why your gynecologists have been so
diligent in recommending colposcopies (examination of the cervix with a
high-powered microscope) and LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure,
which removes abnormal cells from the cervix). They want to make sure that the
abnormal cell changes caused by HPV do not lead to cervical cancer.
However, just because
HPV infection has caused abnormal cell changes in your body does not mean that
a sexual partner of yours who became infected with the same virus would
experience any ill effects from HPV. It's difficult to predict who will and who
won't eventually have abnormal cell changes.
Many young people are
familiar with HPV, since HPV vaccines are heavily marketed to adolescents and
their parents. However, it's not a guarantee that older people will know much
about the virus. So, you may want to begin a conversation with your friend by
asking how aware he is of safer sex and sexually transmitted infections. This
is best done outside the bedroom in a non-sexual context. You could even begin
by comparing notes about the sex education you received in school and how
different it is today, which can be a humorous way to break the ice on this
topic (check out the American Social Health Association blog entry "Sex
and the Senior Set" for an example of this).
If he's not familiar
with HPV, explain that it's a very common virus that is usually harmless, but
that in some people it can cause genital warts or cancer. You can even say that
he's probably been exposed to it already, even if he's never had any symptoms.
Refer him to the American Social Health Association website for more
information. There's even a one-page fact sheet about HPV for men that you
can download and give to him if you want.
Let him know that you have
an HPV infection that is being monitored by your doctor. At age 65, most people
have some chronic health issues that they're dealing with, and this is really
no different. If you are not ashamed to discuss it, then your partner too will
have less anxiety and worry about it.
It is then up to the two
of you to discuss what you want to do. Using condoms can reduce, but not
eliminate, the risk of transmitting HPV to a partner. This is a good time to
talk about other STIs as well, and see if he has had a sexual health checkup of
his own recently. There are many other sexual health issues that come up as we
get older, such as erectile dysfunction or vaginal lubrication, so this can be
a good time to talk about those as well.
Finally, be sure to
check with your gynecologist about sex, especially before or after an exam or
surgical procedure. Your doctor may have specific recommendations about
limiting sexual activity based on your particular situation.
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Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.