We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual-health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. This week’s topic: What to do when your partner gets diagnosed with HPV .
Q: I got the Gardasil vaccine when I was 18. A few weeks ago, my boyfriend found a genital wart and was diagnosed with HPV. We use condoms when we have sex, but the wart was on a part not covered by the condom. I don't have any warts (yet), but I guess my question is, how worried should I be? Is there anything I can do to protect myself now that I know? Does this mean we'll always have to use condoms? If I stay with him, am I basically eventually doomed to get HPV or does the vaccine mean I don't have to worry?
A: Thank you for your question about HPV! Since HPV is actually the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States, we could all do with a brush-up on the subject.
Just the Facts Ma’am
The most common STI in the United States you say? S&#t! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that around 79 million (yes that’s MILLION) Americans have HPV right now, and around 14 million more will get infected each year. In fact, HPV is so common that nearly everyone who is sexually active will get at least one strain of HVP sometime during their life.
Stay with me here: There are over 100 different strains of HPV, or Human Papillomavirus. Around 60 of those strains live on your skin, causing warts on your hands and feet (these are called common, plantar, or flat warts). The remaining 40-plus strains are sexually transmitted, and are called genital warts because they like to live in the moist mucous membranes in the genitals and anus.
Of these sexually transmitted strains, not all cause warts in your nether bits. Furthermore, only a couple strains are known to cause cancer, with varying risks within those strains. And while many, many women are infected with the high-risk strains, only a very small subset get cervical cancer during their lives. The major takeaway of this HPV lesson: This virus is not a death sentence. Breathe! That said, here's what you need to know.
How Do I Know If I Have HPV?
The best way to learn if you are positive for HPV is to go to your local clinic or visit your trusty ob/gyn and get tested for it. If you see a wart on yourself (feel free to google-image search “HPV warts” if you’re unclear what they look like, but don’t say I didn’t warn you not to do it during breakfast), that’s a good indication that you are positive. If you receive an abnormal pap smear during your routine ladyparts testing, your gynecologist should test you for HPV and discuss your status with you.
How Do people contract It?
Unfortunately for us sexually active folks, HPV is relatively easy to contract. That’s because it’s transmitted by direct skin-on-skin contact in addition to sexual bodily fluids. You can get HPV from your partner through unprotected vaginal, anal, and oral sex, but also through skin-to-skin contact with someone who’s infected, and even through shared sex toys if you are swapping in a short time span. Another fun fact: Mothers can give HPV to their newborns through vaginal birth.
All of this means that condoms don’t completely protect you from HPV infection because they literally don’t cover all your, ahem, bases. However, research has found that condoms can significantly reduce the spread of the virus, with one study finding that young women whose partners used condoms were 73 percent less likely to be infected. Better than nothing, right?
Is it Forever? Foreverever?
You may have caught up at the top of this post that 79 million Americans are infected with HPV right now, with more getting infected all the time. As the detail-oriented reader you are, you probably homed in on the “right now” in that sentence. Whatever could that mean? Does that mean HPV can go away? It sure can.
The great thing about your body is that it is strong — much stronger than HPV infection. In a majority of cases, your body clears the HPV infection all on its own, like the empowered badass it is. Just because you test positive for HPV doesn’t mean you’ll have it forever. In fact, the average life of an HPV infection is between four and twenty months, and most people kick it within two years. HPV progresses to pre-cancer in the rather rare instance when the body is unable to clear a high-risk strain for a long time, leading the normal infected cells to turn abnormal.
Gardasil: Protection from What?
Just to catch up the uninitiated, the Gardasil vaccine came out in 2008, with use in men approved in 2009. But what does Gardasil actually do? The vaccine covers the four strains that put you at highest risk for cancer and genital warts. While this is awesome, let’s dig a bit into the reasons why Gardasil won't entirely protect you from HPV or cervical cancer:
- It bears repeating: Gardasil only protects against four of the over 100 strains of HPV. While those are the strains that are most likely to develop into cervical cancer, making Gardasil a potentially life-saving health-care tool, if I were a teacher, Gardasil would be getting a fat red F on the grade curve for eradication of the virus as a whole. But this is fine, because that’s not its intended purpose — cancer prevention is.
- Lots of us who were vaccinated after we popped our proverbial cherries may have been already infected with a high-risk strain, and Gardasil can’t protect you from what you already have.
- New research indicates that Gardasil doesn’t protect against the high-risk HVP strains more prevalent in black women, meaning that we still have a long way to go to protect all women and the people who love them.
So … Now What?
In summation, Freaking Out, it’s likely that you have been exposed to HPV, since your boyfriend’s wart was hanging out outside the condom line. But remember: Just because you’re exposed to something doesn’t mean you’re gonna get it! Think of flu season and how you took care of your sniffly roommate that one time even though you knew he was still contagious and didn’t get the flu. And even if you do become infected, it’s not the end of the world. Chances are, your body will clear it. If that doesn’t happen, your ob/gyn will catch it at your routine pap smear and work with you to track its course over time to make sure that in the very rare case that you do develop cervical pre-cancer cells, it is taken care of ASAP.
So what can you do? Refrain from having intercourse until your boyfriend's wart clears up, and keep using condoms after that. Send a heartfelt thank you back in time to your 18-year-old self that you are protected from the most high-risk HPV strains. Most importantly in my book, think about some ways you can use your new knowledge of HPV to communicate with and support your boyfriend. If you were freaking out thinking you might get infected with HPV, also think about how he must have felt thinking he could be infecting you!
Destigmatizing this extremely common and not terrifying virus is the best way to eradicate it, and that important work starts with you. Get it, girl.