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Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013

Please, Don’t Be “Devastated” When You Find Out You Have HPV

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I was devastated to find out after a Pap smear [that] I am positive for HPV. I had no idea because I have no symptoms at all, not even genital warts. I've been with my partner for almost two years, and I recently went back after six months and tested positive again for HPV. I was just wondering if you could answer a couple of questions I have. How can I get of rid of HPV? Will this affect me in the future if I want to have kids? Could this potentially lead to cancer? And lastly, having the same sexual partner for almost two years would mean that he also has HPV; what can we do to avoid passing the infection back and forth?

I get so many questions about human papillomavirus (HPV) that sometimes, I feel I should just start an HPV resource center. Except that this already exists. And it’s run by the excellent American Sexual Health Association. I cannot recommend it enough for comprehensive information about HPV.

Why so many questions about HPV? I think it’s a combination of several things. Most importantly, our knowledge about HPV is constantly evolving. Researchers release new information about HPV and how it affects us almost monthly. It’s difficult for health care providers and other professionals in the field to keep up with this information, let alone the average person who doesn’t spend all day thinking about genital health. Additionally, since HPV vaccines like Gardasil and Cervarix became available, pharmaceutical companies have started advertising campaigns to promote these vaccines that explicitly link HPV with cancer. If pharmaceutical companies can scare you with the word “cancer,” they will profit, because more people will get these vaccines. Just because pharmaceutical companies would like you to be scared doesn’t mean you should be.

So let’s take a look at some common misconceptions about HPV. You say you were “devastated to learn that…[you] are positive for HPV.” You shouldn’t be devastated. People reading this article: if you are sexually active, assume that you will get HPV at some point in your life. Eighty percent of sexually active people will. It’s like the common cold. It’s going to happen. And it isn’t necessarily going to affect you at all.

You say, “I had no symptoms at all, not even genital warts.” There are over 100 different strains of HPV. Most types of HPV have no symptoms. Only a few cause genital warts, and those strains are NOT the same as the ones that can cause cervical cancer, which is the type that a Pap smear is looking for. People seem to be aware that HPV is connected to both genital warts and to cervical cancer (as well as anal and oral cancer), but do not seem to know that there’s more than one type of HPV.

As for your other questions, the majority of people will naturally clear HPV from their bodies over time, usually in just a couple of years. For women who, for whatever reason, don't naturally clear HPV, it can potentially lead to cervical cancer, but this can be prevented by getting regular Pap smears to check for pre-cancerous cells, which can then be removed before they develop into cancer. HPV should not affect a woman's ability to bear children, and HPV can only very rarely be transmitted to infants during childbirth (and then, only the strains that cause genital warts).

There is very little that can be done to completely avoid HPV, other than not having sex at all. It is likely that your partner has it, as you say, but if your partner is male, there are no approved tests or treatments for him, outside of treatments for the type of HPV that causes genital warts. He is likely to clear it from his body naturally in a couple of years. It’s unlikely that the two of you will keep passing the same HPV virus back and forth, because your body learns to recognize it.

The health care provider who did your Pap smear should have explained all this to you. It sounds like he/she didn't do a particularly good job. People should not be panicked about an HPV diagnosis. It's incredibly common, and as long as people have access to health care and get Pap smears regularly and treatment for any abnormal cells, it does not have to have a major negative impact on your life.

Laura Anne Stuart owns the
Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side. She has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than fifteen years. Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.