HPV.jpg
Hopefully you caught our Impertinent Question video earlier today about what people know, don't know and NEED to know about HPV. But we couldn't fit it ALL into a few short clips, so for those responsible souls who'd like to further school themselves on the ins and outs of HPV, here's an even more detailed rundown of the virus. (Italicized text indicates info NOT included in the video.)

What does HPV stand for?
Human papilloma virus

How common is it?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection there is. The CDC says most sexually active people in the United States (U.S.) will have HPV at some time in their lives. It is estimated that 80 percent of all women -- and 50 percent of men and women combined -- will get one or more types of sexually transmitted HPV at some point in their lives.

Who can get it?
Both men and women can catch, spread and show symptoms of HPV. It just depends on what strain of HPV you get -- more on that in a minute. Keep reading...

How does it affect people?
Okay, here's where HPV gets a little tricky. There are approximately a HUNDRED different strains of the virus. Of those, about 30 to 40 strains are sexually transmitted. Of the sexually transmitted strains, some cause visible genitals warts in both men and women. While genital warts are annoying and not exactly attractive, they usually don't lead to serious health problems in either men or women, which is why the genital wart strains are called low risk. Other sexually transmitted strains of HPV, known collectively as "subclinical" HPV, cause microscopic cellular changes, some of which if left untreated can lead to cervical cancer in women, which is why they're called high risk strains. While subclincal HPV can cause other cancers in the genital region, in both men and women, when people talk about HPV, they're usually talking about women and their risk of cervical, since that's the by far the most prevalent problem. Men are usually just carriers and transmitters of these subclinical strains, and almost always don't get any symptoms, lucky bastards.

How can people find out if they have it?
Unfortunately, there's no test for men to see if they are carriers of any strain of HPV. They can undergo a visual exam to see if there are any visible genital warts, but that's the only way to catch it. If they have it but don't show symptoms, they're shit out of luck. Or rather, the person they're sleeping with is shit out of luck. Women can undergo a visual exam for visible genital warts, as well as a pap smear to detect microscopic cellular changes on the cervix (what's known as "cervical dysplasia"), which is usually assumed by docs to be indicative of the presence of HPV.

There is also a special HPV test for women: it's not really done on women under 30, because according to our very own Dr. Kate, it's just assumed that sexually active 20-somethings have HPV, because it's so prevalent, so doing the HPV test would be a waste of time and money. Also, HPV cases in people under 30 usually go away on their own before they cause problems. However, if you get an abnormal or inconclusive pap smear, you can ask your doctor to do the HPV test. If you are over 30, most experts now recommend that you automatically get an HPV test when you get your pap, since HPV infections are more likely to be persistent at this age. You should call your doctor's office ahead of time to request that this be done, because not all offices do this automatically yet. If the pap is normal but the HPV is positive, both tests are repeated in one year (instead of the recommended 2-3 years).

How is it treated?
Visible genital warts are generally treated (i.e. removed) to reduce the chance of transmission and for cosmetic purposes. Your doctor will decide on the best way to treat your warts, whether it's surgery, topical chemicals, freezing, burning, or laser - and this will usually be done right there in the office. If you're suffering from repeat outbreaks, your doc may also prescribe medicine to help reduce them. By the way, never attempt to treat your own genital warts with over-the-counter wart medicine.

Low-grade abnormalities of the cervix will usually be given a chance to clear up on their own, since many cases do after several months. In fact, according to the CDC, in 90 percent of cases, the body's immune system clears the HPV infection naturally within two years. If the abnormalities don't go away or get worse, there are several ways they can be removed by your doctor: surgery, freezing, burning, or laser. If the cell changes are more advanced, they will often do a biopsy to rule out cancer, as women with HPV are ten times more likely to develop cervical cancer. The good news is that it takes years (if ever) for abnormal cells to lead to cancer, so as long as you're getting annual pap smears, you'll catch the virus in time. Other related cancers are much more rare, and include vulva, penis, anus, and oral cancers. If after about seven years of normal pap smear tests, it's generally assumed the body's immune system has defeated the virus. 

Is HPV like herpes?
It's like herpes in the sense that HPV is a virus that can sometimes cause visible genital sores (or in HPV's case, warts) and it cannot be cured by any medication. However, doctors believe that often your immune system can rid you of the virus on it's own (unlike herpes). The conventional wisdom is that if don't have another HPV outbreak for several years, it's pretty safe to say your body has wiped out that particular strain and you can't pass it on. Though the only way to be 100% sure, at least for women, is to take the HPV test. But even if it's gone, there's no certainty that you can't get that same strain again if exposed to it. And you certainly can get any of the other strains at any time if exposed.

How is HPV transmitted?
Through skin-to-skin contact. Yep! Just rubbing bare genitals together can pass it along, no intercourse or body fluid necessary.
And for the record, hand warts and genital warts are caused by different strains of HPV that only affect their respective types of skin, i.e. you can't get a plantar wart on your big toe by rubbing your partner's crotch with your foot. And vice versa.

What's the Gardasil vaccine I've seen on TV?
Gardasil is a relatively new vaccine available right now, to young women between the ages of 9 and 26, that protects against the two types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer and the two types of HPV that cause the most cases of genital warts. But you've got to understand that Gardasil is not a cervical cancer vaccine, nor does it protect you against the other sexually transmitted strains of HPV. So getting that vaccine does not mean that you don't have to worry about HPV, or that you can forgo getting pap smears, or not use condoms anymore. Still, some protection is better than none. At least we hope that it is and that a few years from now we don't find out there were serious long-term side effects to Gardasil that they just haven't had the time to discover yet.


Leave a comment






Type the characters you see in the picture above.

Ask Em & Lo
In need of some sex-related advice?
Email [email protected].

The Doctor Is In
Got a sexual health question?
Ask [email protected].

Do Before You Die
Office sex, public sex, group sex -- tell us
what you'd like to try someday at
[email protected].

A Day in the Life...
Got a job or hobby that gives you a unique
perspective on sex and dating?
Email [email protected].

Sex Dream Analysis
Get your nocturnal fantasies expertly
analyzed at [email protected].

Anonymity always honored!

[Body By Glamour ad]





Em & Lo, more formally known as Emma Taylor and Lorelei Sharkey, are the self-proclaimed Emily Posts of the modern bedroom.

Dr. Kate is an OB/GYN at one of the largest teaching hospitals in New York City.

Check out Daily Bedpost on MySpace.com.