Today, I’d like to discuss HPV. I won’t go into great detail, but I feel that a little information never hurt anyone.
Only about 27% of HPV types are even related to sex! You probably have had HPV without knowing! Fascinating information follows! Read on, read on…
So what is HPV? HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus (it can cause papillomas… warts). It’s THE MOST COMMON STD. As a matter of fact, the CDC(2) itself says, “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.” The CDC(5) also says that by the age of 50, “at least 4 out of every 5 women will have been infected with HPV at one point in their lives.” Stats for guys are harder simply because you can’t test ’em for HPV!
Don’t worry, I saved the ‘best’ news for last: Your last STD test was negative for everything? Yeah, it didn’t test for HPV. Routine STD tests don’t test for HPV! And lastly, why didn’t I learn about HPV in school? Sex-ed class? Health class? Biology? Anywhere at all???
WOW. So what is this mystery virus that you have probably gotten and never knew?
Well, HPV comes in many different types. In fact, there’s over 150 types of HPV!(1) According to the CDC, only about 40 of those are sexually transmitted. And of that, only 13 types are known to increase your risk of certain types of cancer(5).
(At this point, you might be nodding your head — you’ve probably seen the ads encouraging young ladies AND young guys to get their HPV vaccines [the WHOLE SET!! Don’t just get 1 and then quit!] to help prevent cervical cancer and other cancers. Well this is why.)
Well, the good news is that although you’ve likely gotten HPV in your life, you probably didn’t get a single symptom of it. Oh, you probably passed it along, symptom-free, but you’ll be just fine. And the next person will probably be just fine, too. It’ll live in the skin for a while, spreading itself through skin-to-skin contact with others but causing you no symptoms, and then clear up on its own, given about 2 years(3). That’s for most people. Your immune system is strong and healthy and eventually clears away the virus.
Some people’s bodies keep it around, though. In some people, HPV will show up as warts. (Some more of you may be nodding along now.) Warts around the genitals (ANYwhere in that area, bum included. Inside and out). Warts around the mouth and in the mouth. Two of the types of HPV that can cause warts are types 6 and 11 (which are included in the new HPV vaccines). But the good news here is that if you’re lucky enough to get warts, your body probably DIDN’T respond in the way of silently making some of your cells turn abnormal. Say, on your cervix. Or the back of your throat. Or your anus. Or any other exposed places. (Yeah… Sorry, but that latex condom didn’t actually cover the WHOLE area, did it…? You’d basically need an entire suit made of latex to be safe from contracting/spreading HPV.)
But for some other, unlucky folk, that’s exactly what the HPV does. It lingers AND happens to be one of the few types known to cause cell changes. This type is probably not going to give you any external signs, it’ll just quietly change your cells and wait until there is something detectable in a Pap smear or HPV-specific test. (Sorry guys, no test for you.) Of all 150+ types of HPV, it’s types 16 and 18 that appear most troublesome. Those two alone are responsible for causing “70% of cervical cancers and precancerous cervical lesions”(6)! The good news for young ladies is that the current HPV vaccines include those 2 types of HPV! Yeah, you need to complete the entire round of shots. Don’t quit after just getting the first one.
And this is why routine Pap smear tests for ladies are SO IMPORTANT! Because you have to catch those changed cells before they turn into cancer. You have a few years before HPV-changed cells go cancerous, though. So just keep on gettin’ those routine Pap smears. Oh, and an important note about that, too — your routine Pap smear might NOT include an HPV-specific check. You might want to talk with your gynecologist about that and make sure you get one every several years, if you’re interested. The routine Pap smears will pick up HPV only if cells are changed because of it.
Hey so what about the wart you found on your foot after a month of gymnastics? That was probably one of the other 110+ types of HPV – not one of the STD types. But yep, that was HPV.
So are you a guy and want to know how you’d know if you have HPV? Well, you’ll pretty much only know if you get warts or if you get any signs of cancer (but the statistics make it look EXTREMELY RARE for you guys)(4). There are some symptoms that you guys could be on the lookout for, if you’re worried. I’ll list a few here, from the CDC(4), but pretty much you should go to the website and read on for yourself. I’m going to just throw out symptoms, all mish-mashed together: anal bleeding, thickening skin or changes in color of penis, growths or sores in genital areas, chronic sore throat or ear pain, changes in bowel habits or stool shape. I think this gives you an idea of what to look for but please, go to the site if you’re concerned or just interested.
So what’s my moral? Don’t hide the existence of HPV from adolescents/teens. Educate! What the heck! The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be for the real world!