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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Questions and Answers about HPV

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As I’ve mentioned before, I receive a lot of questions about HPV. And every time I publish an answer to an HPV-related question, I get more. HPV is like the unstoppable multi-headed hydra of sexuality education. I shall continue to do my best to slay the beast by answering two reader questions at once in this column.

My husband is a carrier of HPV. I was diagnosed and treated successfully. Can I contract HPV again?

Short answer: Yes, it is possible. There are over 100 different strains of HPV. Some strains cause genital warts; some are linked to cervical, anal and oral cancers; and some are harmless. Your body will recognize and develop resistance to the strain of HPV that your husband carries, so it’s unlikely that you would acquire that particular type of HPV again. However, you or your husband could contract different strains of HPV if you have sexual contact with other people.

It also may be possible that your husband is currently a carrier of more than one strain of HPV and that you may develop signs of exposure to a second strain later. I mention this because sometimes people believe that a diagnosis of HPV infection indicates that their partner has been “cheating,” but HPV can hang out in the body for several years, and the date that someone is diagnosed with an HPV infection can be quite a long time after that person or their partner initially contracted it.

 

If a guy happens to have the genital warts strain of HPV, but not even one tiny genital wart, is it possible to get oral HPV by performing oral sex while he is wearing a condom?

HPV can be transmitted even when visible genital warts are not present. However, using a condom during oral sex can be a good way of preventing transmission. HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, so if the skin of your lips and mouth do not come into contact with your partner’s genitals, you are protected. HPV can be found not just on the shaft of the penis, but also on the scrotum/balls, around the anus, and sometimes in the general groin area as well. These areas aren’t covered by a condom, so avoiding oral contact with these parts of the body can also help reduce your risk.

It’s very rare for warts to be found in the mouth, so some researchers think that it’s unlikely that the types of HPV that cause genital warts are spread through oral sex. However, the types of HPV that cause cancer have been linked to oral sex. We’re still learning about HPV, so the best we can do right now is weigh the possible risks of transmission and decide what level of risk we’re each willing to assume when we have sex. Most sexual activities carry some risk of STI transmission, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have sex—most of us drive cars every day even though there’s always a chance that we could be in an accident. If using a condom during oral sex makes you feel good and reduces your anxiety, then it’s the right choice for you.

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.