The skinny on HPV: what you MUST know about the human papillomavirus

 

Many people ask me about the human papillomavirus (HPV), particularly since the release and wide marketing of Gardasil, one of the world’s two HPV vaccines (and the only one currently FDA-approved for sale in the United States). Here are some things that you should know about HPV.

1. HPV is NOT – I repeat, NOT – the same as HIV. These are two VERY different viruses. HPV stands for the human papillomavirus and HIV stands for the human immunodeficiency virus.

2. How common is HPV? Some research reports suggest that as many as 60 to 80% of sexually active adults have been exposed to HPV through vaginal sex, anal sex or oral sex.

3. How is HPV transmitted? HPV can be transmitted through vaginal sex, anal sex or oral sex. And yes, even if you stick it in “just a little” or “just for a minute”.

4. What is HPV? HPV refers to a virus although there are more than 100 strains of HPV. Some of these strains are sexually transmissible (meaning, they can be passed from one person to another during sexual contact); others are not.

5. What happens to someone if they get HPV? Scientists are still trying to understand the course of infection (what happens to a person once they get infected with HPV, how long it lives in their body, etc). As I mentioned before, about 60 to 80% of adults have been estimated to have come into contact with HPV through sexual contact. Not everyone who is exposed to HPV gets symptoms of HPV. Some strains of HPV can cause genital warts. Sometimes these warts very obviously look like warts; other times they look like little pimples and other times they can barely be seen by the naked eye. Other times a person might have a wart-related strain but never get any warts at all (i.e., they might be a carrier of the virus even if they don’t show the symptoms).

Other strains of HPV are what are considered “high risk” strains of HPV. These strains are associated with a higher risk for developing cervical cancer or vulvar cancer (among women), penile cancer (among men) or anal/rectal cancers (among women or men). Some recent research suggests that high risk strains of HPV may be associated with a higher risk of oral (mouth) cancers as well. This does not mean people with high risk versions will get cancer; it just means that they are at a slightly higher risk. It is important, if you have been diagnosed with a high risk strain of HPV, to follow up with your healthcare provider in the manner in which he or she recommends to you.

[Read more about whether condoms can prevent HPV, about the HPV vaccine, and about the little known fact that men cannot be tested for HPV... after the jump]

6. Can condoms prevent HPV? Condom use likely cannot prevent the transmission of HPV from one person to the next since, like herpes, it is not a virus that is transmitted through fluids but through skin to skin contact. And since condoms can’t cover all of one’s genital area skin, you can’t have total protection from HPV transmission. That said, condoms are still a highly effective means of preventing HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), chlamydia and gonorrhea (if left untreated, chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause fertility problems). Consistent and correct use of condoms can reduce a person’s risk of passing or contracting several – but not all – sexually transmissible infections (STI).

7. What’s the deal with the HPV vaccine? Gardasil, the HPV vaccine that is approved for use in the US, is highly effective against four strains of HPV – two that are mostly associated with genital warts and two that are mostly associated with “higher risk” (like the cancers described above). It does not offer protection against all strains of HPV. In addition, we need more long-term data on Gardasil – for example, if you get the three shot series now, will you need a “booster shot” in 5 or 10 years in order to maintain its effectiveness? If you have chosen to have the vaccine, please make sure that you are a smart consumer. Keep your eyes and ears open to media reports in the coming years so that you know if you need a booster shot or other follow-up care. In addition, check in with your healthcare provider at your annual wellness exams to see if any news has changed about the vaccine.

8. How can I get tested for HPV? If you are a woman, you should be getting regular Pap tests in accordance with your healthcare provider’s recommendations (some women need Pap tests every 3-6 months; other women may go 1-3 years between Pap tests). Women can be tested for HPV when they get a Pap test or during their gyn exam. At this time, we do not have HPV testing available to men. That’s not to say that we can’t test any men for HPV – it is being done in some research studies. However, scientists are still working out the details on HPV testing for men. Right now, unfortunately, we cannot offer that test to men. So if a man tells you that he has been “tested for everything” – well, that’s not exactly true as he likely has not been tested for HPV.

For more information about HPV, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site.

Related MSP Posts:
- FDA Approves a New Female Condom (Click HERE to read)
- HPV and Cervical Cancer, HPV Testing and More (Click HERE to read)

If you have a question about sex, love, dating, relationships, orgasm, desire, pain during sex or such, email me at DrDebby@mysexprofessor.com

[Image via this site].

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.

  • jake

    if there is no known test for hpv for men, how will a man know if he has it or not?

  • jake

    if there is no known test for hpv for men, how will a man know if he has it or not?

  • Debby

    That’s a great question. Unfortunately, often men don’t know that they have HPV. If they have new or unusual bumps on their genitals, they can ask their healthcare provider if the bumps appear to be genital warts or not (often, but not always, a healthcare provider can tell if a man has genital warts or not). But as for the many other strains of HPV, such as those that are linked with cervical health problems, men cannot currently be tested for these and so men – and the women who are at risk of getting these strains from their male partners – won’t know if they carry these or not. Most adult women and men have been exposed to HPV, so infection is common. Also, testing is underway to better understand whether the Gardasil HPV vaccine is effective among men, as well. In the mean time, researchers continue to work on effective and affordable HPV testing for men.

  • Debby

    That’s a great question. Unfortunately, often men don’t know that they have HPV. If they have new or unusual bumps on their genitals, they can ask their healthcare provider if the bumps appear to be genital warts or not (often, but not always, a healthcare provider can tell if a man has genital warts or not). But as for the many other strains of HPV, such as those that are linked with cervical health problems, men cannot currently be tested for these and so men – and the women who are at risk of getting these strains from their male partners – won’t know if they carry these or not. Most adult women and men have been exposed to HPV, so infection is common. Also, testing is underway to better understand whether the Gardasil HPV vaccine is effective among men, as well. In the mean time, researchers continue to work on effective and affordable HPV testing for men.

  • R

    If a partner’s genital warts have been treated and have not come back, is there still a high likelihood of transmission? Also, if the partner was only infected in one area, is using other parts of the body for sex less risky? My specific situation is that my boyfriend had anal warts (he’s never had them anywhere else), but his doctor treated them all and is of the opinion that they probably won’t come back. I don’t plan on penetrating him, but I would like to know if I can give him oral without a condom and not worry about getting infected.

    I know that the virus never leaves the body, but I’ve never been able to find a clear answer about whether or not the low-risk strains can be spread through just semen if there is no contact with infected skin.

  • R

    If a partner’s genital warts have been treated and have not come back, is there still a high likelihood of transmission? Also, if the partner was only infected in one area, is using other parts of the body for sex less risky? My specific situation is that my boyfriend had anal warts (he’s never had them anywhere else), but his doctor treated them all and is of the opinion that they probably won’t come back. I don’t plan on penetrating him, but I would like to know if I can give him oral without a condom and not worry about getting infected.

    I know that the virus never leaves the body, but I’ve never been able to find a clear answer about whether or not the low-risk strains can be spread through just semen if there is no contact with infected skin.

  • Curious Student

    I understand that the virus is contracted by skin to skin contact. What are the affects of HPV on foreplay? For example, pleasuring one with the hand? Going both ways: girl to guy, guy to girl.

    If so, are the uses of the finger and hand safe? I read somewhere that HPV can only be obtained in areas “where ever there is mucus membrains.” If so, are the uses of the finger and hand safe? Would washing the hand after prevent it from spreading elsewhere on the body?

  • http://N/A Curious Student

    I understand that the virus is contracted by skin to skin contact. What are the affects of HPV on foreplay? For example, pleasuring one with the hand? Going both ways: girl to guy, guy to girl.

    If so, are the uses of the finger and hand safe? I read somewhere that HPV can only be obtained in areas “where ever there is mucus membrains.” If so, are the uses of the finger and hand safe? Would washing the hand after prevent it from spreading elsewhere on the body?

  • Youngster

    I am only fifteen and I have never had sexual intercourse before. I have never had oral or anal sex, but there seems to be growth on my penis. These growths have been around for a couple of years. Could this be HPV?

  • Youngster

    I am only fifteen and I have never had sexual intercourse before. I have never had oral or anal sex, but there seems to be growth on my penis. These growths have been around for a couple of years. Could this be HPV?

  • Sally

    A few doctors told me that HPV can actually go away. I guess technically the virus is in your body forever, but I think, according to one doctor, as I was worrying I had it but wasn't showing symptoms, she said even if I did have it, it wasn't something to worry about as long as my paps were normal and I didn't have warts because at a young age my body would clear itself on its own. So I guess it's pretty common and can cause cancer, but the odds are that most people have it and it doesn't do anything. Still, it's better to be safe than sorry. I wish I was more aware of this a few years ago. I'd have not touched anyone haha. I haven't even had sex, but I've had skin contact down there with one person. He doesn't sleep around and has no signs or warts, so hopefully he doesn't have it, but who knows. I guess it's kind of something you can't worry about unless you get an abnormal pap and/or see warts. Oh and warts can go away and are usually harmless, they are just kind of icky.

  • yousif_00

    can you have a family, as in be able to have kids and so on.

  • Sally

    I've asked my doctor about this. It's not as likely that HPV would pass this way as compared to actual intercourse, but it is still possible, since it is transmitted through skin to skin contact. Some say it's possible in a theoretical sense, some say that there have been cases found in virgins (though we don't know if they are truthful or if there was genital to genital apposition). There is still a lot that is unknown about the virus. My doctor said that washing hands before would kill the virus if it is somehow lingering on the hands. Maybe it's a good idea to wash and scrub under nails. There are some experts, though, who say that in all their years researching STDs and etc they have never had a case of HPV being spread through purely hand on genitals. However, most people are doing more than that so I would imagine it is hard to tell when exactly the virus was transmitted, if at all. Washing hands is definitely a good precaution, it's rare that the virus would be present on the hand permanently (as the virus is said to prefer the mucous membrane; genitals most likely, and on rare occasions the mouth), so washing hands would kill it if it is, perhaps, lingering from touching someone's genitals or your own or etc. But don't stress too much about HPV, though it IS something to be aware of and careful about, it is usually something that a lot of people have, aren't even aware of and aren't affected by it. This is not to say that you cant be affected by it at any point. Always using condoms, of course, and being careful with simple things like hand contact and oral sex is all you can do. Know there is a risk, take precautions, and always get regular check ups. Kudos to you for seeking out more information and trying to be safe!

  • Sally

    Unfortunately, as of now, there is no way for a man to know if he has HPV unless, say, a girl he sleeps with, who has never had any sexual contact before, ends up with it. Then just by that logic, he would know he had it. The only other way is if he had the strain that causes warts and he is unfortunate enough to have them appear on his genitals.

    Unless you are married and trying to have a baby with someone, you should always use condoms, because you (and I don't mean you specifically I just mean in general) could be a carrier and pass it along to a woman, and it's a bigger deal for a woman if she gets it. Also, you never know who has it, if a woman has not been tested or has not had a pap smear and is unaware of her status, you could be at risk of getting it and then either getting warts or just a silent type and passing it along. Be aware too, if a girl ever says that she has been tested for it, she may have only had a pap smear, which is to check for abnormal cells, which she may not have abnormal cells, but she could still have the virus.

    Really all I should have said is: you can't know unless you give it to a virgin or have warts. So always use condoms! :)

  • Sally

    There is still a risk of possibly getting it if you are not using protection…however from what I've read, the virus prefers the genital area. So it's rare that HPV is in the mouth. But it is still possible. In terms of warts, it depends on how long ago they were treated. I think that after a year, doctors have said, that a person is not longer contagious, if they are totally clear of warts. A friend of mine's boyfriend had genital warts about a year before they dated, and they have sometimes not used condoms. She recently had an abnormal pap smear, however she has not had any warts ever. So in this case she may have already had HPV or perhaps he still had it and it affected her internally…I'm actually not so sure about how this works. My point is that you never know. I think unprotected oral is less risky but it is not risk free. If he had the warts on his anus I would avoid doing anything there without protection. Contact with his penis might be okay, but again it's still possible…in terms of how the virus is spread, I think that it's just skin contact, I don't know if semen would spread it, but remember that there are other STDs that can be spread this way, so if you haven't already, make sure you are both tested for other STDs too. If a doctor says that the warts wont come back, I'd wait a few months to see if they come back…perhaps hold off on having unprotected anything for a year, usually a year is a good amount of time for the virus to completely be cleared by the body to a point where it is no longer contagious.

    hope this helps a bit. be safe!!

    xoxo

  • Sally

    If you haven't had any sexual contact it's really really really really really unlikely that you have HPV. In fact it's almost impossible. Unless you had some hand to genital contact with someone who had just touched themselves vigorously and then touched you and rubbed it in…meaning there would have to be extreme rare and perfect settings for this to occur. Some say it's possible to get it from wearing someone else's underwear or using a wet towel that someone has used, but this is rare too. I once read something on medhelp.com where an expert said “you have to earn it” meaning penetration, rubbing, thrusting, etc. If it's just one growth, it's probably not a wart, usually there are clusters like cauliflowerish looking things. I recommend seeing a doctor though, it could be something else, though I highly doubt you have HPV if you haven't done anything.

    Please please please, when you do finally start having sex, please use protection. Remember that oral sex has some risk of spreading STDs as well…gonorrhea (I will never remember how to spell this horrible word) can be spread into the mouth, herpes is sometimes transmitted through oral and they say there is a theoretical risk of passing HIV, though very very low and almost impossible, there is no proof that it is not impossible, so better to be safe than sorry. I'm so glad you are seeking out info about this online, but see a doctor about the growth just to see what it is. And good for you that you haven't started having sex yet, you are still really young and a lot of people do not know the risks and responsibility of sex. I really hope that you will always use a condom, even with oral sex, and even if you are in a relationship, because unless you are married, nothing is a sure thing, even marriage you never know…but let's hope there are nice people who will be honest.

    Sorry to preach, I just really want to try to keep young people from having to deal with STDs because it's something that can be avoided and yet so many people are not careful. I had a scare once and I hadn't even had sex, still haven't, I'm waiting for the right time and person : ) and I'm way older than you.

    Be good to yourself and your body!

    And get that growth checked, you're probably fine, but just see what it is. Good luck and be safe!

  • Justin

    hi there. I was curious about something. My gf has the hpv virus with no outbreaks. Now i have gave her oral sex many times now and i am worried that i will get mouth or throat cancer. Should i stop completely at doing this or how rare is it for a guy to get it in his mouth if she has the virus but no outbreak.

  • BluePetals1995

    if youre 15 and your partner does not have HPV can you still get it?