Your Personal Guide to HPV and Sex
HPV (human papillomavirus) is the most common STD/STI. It’s been known to cause genital warts and cancer, and it spreads easily through sexual contact. So how can you protect yourself and your sexual partner from getting HPV?
Maybe you have HPV and are worried about infecting your partner. Maybe your partner just told you they have HPV and you’re wondering if it’s safe to keep having sex with them. Or, maybe you just want to know how you can lower your chances of getting an HPV infection.
In any case, here’s your personalized guide to living and loving with HPV.
What to do if you have HPV
First of all, don’t worry. While HPV is definitely something you’ll want to talk to your doctor about, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. And it’s probably not as bad as you think it is. Yes, it’s true that certain types of HPV can cause cancer. But the vast majority of patients recover naturally within one or two years, and have no lasting symptoms. Even if HPV does cause cancer, you can usually catch and treat it – or even prevent it – if you get regular health screenings.
Perhaps surprisingly, most sexually active people will develop HPV at some point. In fact, about 79 million Americans have it right now.
Of course, you’ll still want to take action. If you have genital warts, see a dermatologist to get rid of them. While these warts can heal on their own, it usually takes a long time and there’s always a risk that they’ll come back.
For women, if you had an abnormal Pap smear, you doctor will probably want to check for precancerous cells, just to be on the safe side.
So what does HPV mean for your sex life? Although it’s ultimately your decision, we recommend telling your partner you have it. Remember that you haven’t done anything wrong, and you have nothing to apologize for. Before telling your partner, you may want to do a little reading up on HPV yourself, so you can answer their questions.
HPV spreads through skin-to-skin contact during genital or oral sex, which means it can spread via genital-to-genital contact, genital-to-anus, or genital-to-mouth. If you’re worried about spreading HPV, you can use condoms and dental dams to lower your partner’s risk of infection.
Once you’ve told your partner, the two of you can decide whether or not you want to continue having sex. If you have HPV with genital warts, then you might want to get these treated first, as they’re usually contagious.
Your dermatologist may recommend freezing the warts off (known as cryotherapy or cryosurgery), or using a prescription cream on a regular basis until the warts are gone. In more extreme cases, your dermatologist may apply TCA acid or Podophyllin (a liquid that burns the wart off) to destroy the wart tissue. For some of these treatments, you’ll need to come in for a few visits over a period of time.
If you have HPV without any symptoms, you can still pass the infection on to your partner. Then again, about 90 percent of HPV patients clear the infection on their own without developing cancer. So the chances that your HPV will negatively affect your partner are pretty slim.
Sometimes, people worry that if they spread HPV to their partner, their partner will spread it back to them and it will just keep going back and forth. Not to worry: once you get infected with one type of HPV, you won’t get it again. Bear in mind, though, that since there are so many different types of HPV, you could potentially get infected with another type later.
What to do if your partner has HPV
Right now, your partner is probably scared and a bit overwhelmed. By telling you about their diagnosis, they’ve shown that they trust and care about you. React in a way that shows you trust and care about them as well.
First of all, it helps to understand what HPV is and how someone can develop it. HPV (human papillomavirus) is one of the most common sexually-transmitted infections, and there are more than 100 different types. Although it has been known to cause cancer, 90% of HPV patients clear up on their own, with no symptoms. This usually happens within one or two years.
It’s important to realize that HPV isn’t a sign of unfaithfulness or promiscuity. Anyone can get it, including monogamous sexual partners. In fact, most people who are sexually active will develop HPV at some point.
HPV spreads through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex, as well as through the touching of genitals. So, if your sexual partner has HPV, there’s a good chance you could catch it yourself. That doesn’t mean you need to be celibate for the rest of your life, though. Since the risk of developing cancer from HPV is so low, and since most HPV-related cancers can be treated or even prevented, you’re probably OK to keep having sex.
If your partner has genital warts, their HPV probably isn’t precancerous. Then again, genital warts are contagious – and they can be frustrating to deal with. If you’ve already been exposed to your partner’s genital warts, you might see symptoms within a few weeks or months. If you do, it’s nothing to worry about. Simply see a dermatologist for treatment.
If you want to keep having sex but are concerned about your risk of infection, use condoms or dental dams. While these won’t guarantee HPV prevention, they significantly lower your risk of infection.
What to do if you’re concerned about getting HPV
Even if neither you nor your partner currently has HPV, there’s a good chance one or both of you could get it at some point. If you’re under 26, you may want to get the HPV vaccine. This prevents most types of HPV, including the main types that cause genital warts and cancer. (You may be able to get the vaccine if you’re over 26. Just talk to your healthcare provider.)
If you’re over 15, you’ll need to get the vaccine in three doses over six months. The vaccine won’t treat HPV that you already have, it will just prevent you from getting it in the future.
Practicing safe sex is also a good way to steer clear of HPV. Condoms or dental dams help minimize your skin-to-skin contact during sex, which makes you less likely to develop HPV. Of course, abstaining from sex is the only sure way not to get HPV. And having sex with multiple partners increases your risk.
If you’re a woman, you might want to get a Pap smear about every three years to check for precancerous cells. That way, if you do get precancerous HPV, you can catch it as soon as it appears.
HPV may be the most common STI, but it’s also one of the easiest to deal with. There’s no need to rein in your love and/or your sex life for fear of getting HPV – just be honest, be smart, and protect yourself and the people you love. After all, that’s probably the most effective strategy you can apply to life.