It seems like someone’s always talking about HPV. You know it’s common…you know it’s got something to do with sex…and you feel like you’ve heard it’s not such a big deal? None of that is far off-base, actually.
HPV, or human papillomavirus, is, indeed, super common—and not necessarily threatening. “It’s often referred to as the ‘common cold’ of sex,” says Fred Wyand, director of communications for the American Sexual Health Association/National Cervical Cancer Coalition.
And yet, it’s absolutely something you need to understand if you’re a woman who likes to get down, especially because of its link to cervical cancer risk (and since January happens to Cervical Health Awareness month, why not now?).
Plus, staying on top of your sexual health is an incredibly important of overall wellness. There’s no point in all that green juice if you have no idea what’s going on downstairs, right?
With that in mind, we’ve laid out all of the HPV basics you need to know:
It’s crazy common. A whopping 80 million people, or roughly one in four Americans, are currently infected with HPV, which is actually a group of several hundred related viruses, more than 40 of which are spread through sexual contact. “CDC estimates there are about 14 million new cases of HPV in the US each year,” Wyand says, adding that experts go so far as to say that most sexually active people will have at least one HPV infection in their lifetime (!).
Why so common? In part, it’s because it’s spread through sexual contact (think intercourse, genital-to-genital without penetration, genital-to-anal, and even oral sex), and while condoms definitely provide significant protection, they can’t necessarily cover all susceptible skin, Wyand says. Plus…
…you may have no idea you’ve got it. Men and women can live with HPV and pass it around to their partners completely unbeknownst to them, because are often no symptoms at all, and it can stick around for years after you’ve picked it up. “It’s not unheard of at all for someone to have HPV for months, or even years, before anything is detected,” Wyand says. (Which means, if you suddenly get HPV and you’ve been in a long-term, monogamous relationship, that doesn’t mean your partner has been stepping out on you. Definitely keep that fact in mind!)
This where those Pap tests you should be getting regularly come in, as well as the FDA-approved HPV test. Together, they can help alert your doctor to the presence of certain types of the virus that can increase your cervical cancer risk.
Good news! It’s generally pretty benign. Just like the common cold, HPV is relatively harmless and the majority of infections clear on their own, Wyand says. But HPV can cause genital warts—as well as cancer if you’ve got one of the high-risk types. Cervical cancer’s the biggie we often hear about, but it can also lead to cancers of the vagina, anus, and throat. Again, screening can help alert your doc to any potential issues, like abnormal cell changes in the cervix.
Bad news: There’s no simple cure. “Like other viral infections, HPV is not a ‘take a shot/pop a pill and get cured’ kind of thing,” Wyand says. There’s no cure for the virus itself, but there are treatments for the problems it can cause, such as genital warts, cell changes in the cervix, and cervical cancer.
Thankfully, there are several vaccines that can help provide protection against new HPV infections—but they don’t help treat established infections. “The focus on vaccination is with younger people,” Wyand says, “especially prior to the debut of sexual activity, so that protection is in place once they do start having sex.” The CDC recommends boys and girls get vaccinated at 11 or 12; men can get vaccinated through 21, women through 26.
Alas, if you’re beyond your mid-20s, it’s too late, but now you’ve got the facts to stay on top of your screenings.
Here’s an unlikely way to get tested for STIs: Tinder is now helping users practice safe sex.