One night, as I was having a quiet evening at home, I received a text from a past sexual partner. As I read the message, my eyes popped out of my head, my jaw fell open, and my heart started racing.
I re-read it slowly to make sure my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me.
I had read it correctly. “I am so sorry to tell you this, but you have a right to know. My ex just contacted me to tell me that she tested positive for the Human papillomavirus (HPV). I think it’s a good idea for you to get tested.”
Uhh, what the actual fuck?
Tears started to fill my eyes. My stomach dropped to my ass, and panic set in.
What does this mean? What if I have an STI? How serious is HPV? Will my sex life be forever impacted? So many thoughts rushed through my head.
I took a few deep breaths, wiped my eyes, and quickly took my ass to a nearby clinic to get a Pap smear - a test that swabs the inside of your cervix to look for the presence of abnormal or pre-cancerous cells, which is essentially what HPV is.
Long story short, abnormal cells were present, and with more testing, it was discovered that I have low-risk HPV.
So, what the fuck is HPV?
HPV is a name for a family of viruses that comes in more than 100 different types and strains.
Out of these 100 types, around 40 of them can be passed through sexual contact and can potentially cause genital warts and/ or cancers in both men and women.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the world today. In fact, HPV is more common than all other STI’s combined! About 80% of sexually active people will contract HPV at least once in their life. The most susceptible populations being females ages 15-24.
How does it spread?
HPV is transmitted through sexual contact, such as: vaginal, oral, and anal sex, as well as genital skin-to-skin contact.
It can also be transferred from mother to child during childbirth, though this is the least common method of transmission.
HPV is usually transmitted from person-to-person without anyone being aware of it. This is because HPV is often symptom-free. This poses a big challenge to deciphering where and when the virus was transmitted and contracted.
How do you detect HPV?
In women, HPV is most commonly diagnosed through a Pap test. It is suggested that if you are 21-69 years of age and sexually active, you should get a Pap every three years.
If you are 70 years of age, or older and your previous 3 Paps were normal, you no longer need to get Paps/ screened for HPV.
As of now, there are no tests to detect the presence of HPV in men. ...Crazy, I know! - Some healthcare providers offer anal Paps to men who may be at increased risk for anal cancer.
The virus can be diagnosed in men, if and when symptoms start to manifest.
What health issues can HPV cause?
Low-risk HPV usually goes away on its own before causing any health issues.
Women under 30 years of age successfully fight off the virus themselves 90% of the time, within one to two years of contraction.
HPV that does not go away on its own can turn into:
Cancer — there are at least 15 high-risk, cancer-causing HPV types — Type 16 and 18 are the two most common ones
HPV can cause: cervical cancer (most common), genital cancer, cancer of mouth and throat
Genital warts - flat or cauliflower-like bumps that are usually painless, may be itchy, and sometimes bleed — they can be found in the groin, genitals, buttocks, and inside the vagina or anus, and are rarely found in the mouth.
Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis - a rare condition where warts starts to grow in the respiratory tract, making it difficult to breathe
Once contracted, the HPV infection cannot be cured. The physical symptoms it causes, however, (ie: genital warts and pre-cancerous lesions), can usually be treated successfully.
The best way to prevent against HPV is to not have sexual contact with an infected person. Obvious, right?
Well, since we often don’t know when someone has HPV, the next best option is to get the HPV vaccine (Gardasil®9 being the latest option), which is effective in both men and women and provides protection against seven types of HPV.
The vaccine is 100% effective in preventing the effects of four kinds of HPV infections that can cause:
Cancer of the cervix, vulva and vagina (HPV types 16 and 18), as well as,
Genital and anal warts (HPV types 6 and 11)
The vaccine works best if you get it prior to exposure to the HPV virus, but it can reduce the risk of HPV-related disease at anytime.
Another preventative measure is the use of condoms. Though they are not 100% effective at preventing the spread of HPV, they have been shown to reduce the chances of transmission. Spermicidal gels and dental damns are also good options to help prevent against the spread of HPV.
It’s important to note that the use of condoms is not considered a substitute for routine Pap screenings, or for the actual vaccine.
Unfortunately, once infected with HPV, you are at greater risk of reinfection and persistent HPV infection.
The risk of infection increases as your number of sexual partners increases, as well as with the more unprotected sex one has.
People with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of contracting HPV.
Should I tell my sexual partners that I have HPV?
Well, would you want to know if someone you were fucking had HPV?... I’m guessing yes.
So, though it’s not required by law, I think it’s fair to let potential sexual partners know what the situation is.
That allows them to have the information that they require to make the smartest decision for themselves. And your honesty also creates a safe space to have conversations that would otherwise likely be uncomfortable.
Be fair. Be safe. Have fun.
Until next time!
CervixCheck (2019). Retrieved from https://www.cancercare.mb.ca/screening/cervix
HPV. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.sexandu.ca/stis/hpv/
HPV. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/human-papillomavirus
Pap Tests. (2018). Retrieved from https://choosingwiselycanada.org/pap-tests/