Many years ago, I was diagnosed with human papillomavirus, aka HPV. I’m not embarrassed to admit that, because it’s so common—about 80 percent of men and women will contract the often-symptomless sexually-transmitted infection in their lifetimes. But back then, I was a little bit freaked out about it—because I’d very recently made it official with the guy I was dating.
Did he give it to me? Or did I get it from my previous partner, and now my new guy is at risk? And if both of us were infected, would we need to diligently use condoms for the next two years—the amount of time it can take for most strains of HPV to go away on their own—or risk passing the virus back and forth to each other for eternity, like “The Song that Never Ends”?
I never asked my doctor these questions (too embarrassing at the time), but was reminded of them during a recent conversation with Natasha Bhuyan, MD, of One Medical in Phoenix, AZ. Although my HPV infection, and that guy, are no longer in my life, I asked her to settle all of my unanswered queries just in case a similar situation should arise in the future. (And because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one wondering.)
Well, I have HPV. How do I know if my partner has it, too?
It’s complicated, says Dr. Bhuyan. A few strains of HPV cause genital warts in men and women, but if you or your partner have one of the 100+ other strains, it’s likely that you won’t have symptoms at all while you’re infected. This makes the whole question of who-infected-who tricky.
If your partner is a man, it’s almost impossible to know for sure whether he has HPV or not. “We can test for HPV in women, but there isn’t a good test in men,” Dr. Bhuyan says. Doctors usually check for HPV by taking a sample of a woman’s cervical cells—often during a pap smear—yet no such procedure exists for men. (Which, WTF.) “There are blood tests for HPV, but nobody recommends using them because they’re completely not useful,” Dr. Bhuyan says. “All it’s gonna show is if you have immunity. That indicates you had it at one point, but it doesn’t tell you if you have an active infection.”
So basically, if your partner is a woman, she can get a pap smear to find out if she too has HPV. If you have a male partner…unless he has genital warts, it’s going to be really hard to tell.
Is there a way to protect my partner from getting HPV?
There’s no way of treating HPV to make it go away faster—you just have to wait for your immune system to get rid of it on its own. So if you’re a woman who’s been diagnosed with HPV and you don’t know whether your current partner gave it to you, you should use protection whenever you have sex—at least until your doctor’s confirmed the virus is no longer present in your body. This applies whether you’re in a monogamous relationship or not. Certain strains of HPV are linked to cancer in both men and women (most notably cervical cancer), so it’s not something you want to take chances with.
Just keep in mind that in addition to oral, anal, and vaginal sex, HPV can also be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact—including parts of the genitals not covered by condoms or dental dams. Consider asking your partner to get the HPV vaccine, which will protect them the cancer-causing strains of the virus.
Given how HPV is transmitted, is it possible to re-infect your partner?
Okay, say you know for a fact that your BF or GF has HPV, too—say, if they had genital warts and now you do too, they were your first sexual partner, or you’re both women who have tested positive for the same strain. You might wonder (like I did) if it’s possible to just pass the infection back and forth to each other.
According to Dr. Bhuyan, that’s (thankfully!) not the case. “Once you get HPV, your body builds antibodies to that strain,” she says. “So when you give HPV to your partner, they generally don’t pass it back to you because you’re already immune to that one strain.” However, she says, this comes with one big caveat. “Because there are so many strains of HPV, people can end up getting different strains, especially if you’re not in a monogamous partnership.” If you or your partner are also seeing other people and you have HPV, you should be extra-mindful of using protection—not only to protect them from your HPV infection but also to protect yourself from potential strains that those other partners may have, too. (Plus, you know, the real risk of getting and spreading other STIs.)
Bottom line: Even if you’re in a long-term, monogamous relationship, you should definitely wear condoms or dental dams during sex while you have HPV. But if you happen to forget a time or two—because you’re human—you and your partner can’t reinfect each other with the same strain of the virus. Gynecological Groundhog Day, this is not.
To prevent some strains of HPV, you can get vaccinated—did you know that men and women up to 45 years of age are now eligible? In other news, “smart condoms” may soon let you detect STIs in the bedroom.
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