It’s a sexually transmitted infection, but also it isn’t.
It can cause genital warts. Or cancer. Or both. Or neither
If you get it, your body will get rid of it unless it doesn’t. You can be vaccinated against HPV and also you can’t.
All of these things are true, which begs the question: What’s the deal with HPV?
I talk and teach about STIs a lot, but I want to take an in-depth look at HPV or Human Papillomavirus specifically because a lot of folks aren’t clear on what HPV is and how it can affect our health. All the information I’m going to cover in this post is also available in this video.
If your HPV knowledge is a little shaky, you’ll get no judgement from me. I actually had to go back and review my facts before shot the video. HPV is a bit tricky beast because it isn’t just one thing. Currently, there are over 170 identified strains of the virus. Each strain is identified by a number – more on that later.
Of the 170-something strains of HPV, about 40 strains can be spread through sexual contact
It’s most commonly spread through penetrative vaginal and anal sex; and in some cases can spread through other types of sexual contact oral sex, hand jobs, fingering, scissoring and so on.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection on earth. In fact, almost everyone who has partnered sex will contract HPV at some point in their lives.
Sometimes HPV is no big deal
There are several strains of sexually transmitted HPV that the body’s immune system can clear up on it’s own. According to the World Health Organization, 90% of HPV infections are cleared by the body within two years. There are also strains of HPV that the body doesn’t clear, but that also don’t cause any significant symptoms or problems.
But because there are so many different types of HPV, it’s important to know that if you have or had one of these low-key strains it doesn’t mean that you’re immune all HPV. You’re still at risk of contracting one of the more serious types of HPV. It’s also important to remember that you can transmit HPV to a partner whether you have symptoms or not.
HPV and genital warts
Genital and anal warts are the most common infection caused by HPV. There are several strains that can cause genital warts, but two specific strains – HPV-6 and HPV-11 – cause close to 90% of genital/anal wart outbreaks.
The strains of HPV that cause warts are different from the strains that cause cancer. Genital warts aren’t dangerous, but they can be itchy or uncomfortable and you may not like the way they look
Genital and anal warts are a bit unpredictable. The can be brown, pink or white in colour Sometimes they appear as single warts, other times they grow in clusters. The may grow larger, or spread, or they may not.
If you develop genital warts, a doctor or medical professional can talk to you about how to treat and manage the outbreak.
HPV and cervical cancer
There are a few strains of sexually transmitted HPV that may cause serious health problems, and lead to cancer of the throat, vagina, anus and most often cervical cancer. In fact almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV, usually strains known as HPV-16 and HPV-18. These strains of HPV can cause pre-cancerous lesions on the cervix.
Like other types of HPV, sometimes the body will heal precancerous lesions can clear up on it’s own. Also, if a person has access to regular pap smears, and a doctor detects lesions they can often be treated successfully before they become cancer.
Left untreated; however, pre-cancerous lesions caused by HPV can progress and become full-blown cervical cancer. Risk factors associated with HPV and cervical cancer include:
- Having partnered sex at a young age*
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Smoking tobacco
- Having an already compromised immune system.
(*Note: I don’t want to stigmatize folks who’ve had partnered sex early or who have sex with multiple partners. The increased risk isn’t a moral judgement – it’s just a statistical thing.)
Vaccines like Gardasil protect against HPV-6 and 11 which are common culprits for warts and HPV-16 and HPV-18, which are the most common cause of cervical cancer. Often the vaccine is recommended for youth between 9-13 and that can freak some parents out because, why so early?
HPV vaccines are most effective if it’s administered before a person has any partnered sexual contact whatsoever, which is why many folks recommend having youth vaccinated in late childhood or early puberty.
Finally, while HPV vaccines can significantly reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer, most doctors still recommend that us cervix-having folks still get our pap smears on the reg.