If STIs were running for class president, HPV (aka Human papillomavirus infection) would win by landslide. Seriously. It’s insanely popular (if one can call a sexually transmitted infections “popular”!)—experts say that around 80% of people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. This is all to say that it’s more likely than not this STI will touch your life in some way, so, given that fact, here are the basics you need to know:
HPV is a virus with that causes either warts or cervical cancer. HPV is a virus that has more than 100 strains—many of which aren’t even transmitted via sexual contact but cause warts on your hands and feet. Of that 100, the 40 or so strains of HPV that are sexually transmitted can cause warts OR cervical cancer.
By cancer—what they really mean is pre-cancerous changes. When you’re reading the word cancer in this article—or if you hear people talking about HPV and cancer in other places—understand that what this truly means is that HPV causes changes to cells that create a condition where cancer is more likely to develop. It’s not that you get HPV and then boom a few months later you have cancer.
If you don’t have the vaccine, get it—guy or girl! The HPV vaccine protects against four strains of the HPV virus, which together cause about 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts. AND the HPV vaccine is now recommended for guys as well. Yeah, you guys don’t have a cervix, but you can still get warts or also pass on the strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer. Plus, researchers now believe that HPV is linked to other types of cancers as well—in the throat, vagina, anus, and penis.
If you’re a teen, there’s no need for you to get a Pap smear. While it’s still a good idea for ladies to be going to the gyno once they’re sexually active, docs say you don’t actually need to start getting Pap smears until you’re 21. In case you don’t know, Pap smears go like this: you put your feet in stirrups, your doc opens your vaginal canal with a speculum (which is possibly uncomfortable but shouldn’t be painful), and swabs the area to collect samples of the cells. Pap tests are one of the primary reasons that that many girls are intimidated about going to the gyno. So rejoice girls! Taking care of your sexual health just got a little less intimidating…
If you have an abnormal Pap/positive HPV test, don’t freak! If at some point in your life you do find out you have HPV—whether you get a wart, or an abnormal Pap, or positive HPV test—don’t freak. Most doctors believe our bodies rid themselves of the virus after about two years, though during this time they may want to monitor you just to see exactly what the virus is doing. In other words, although HPV is something you’ll have to deal with for a while, odds are it will resolve itself on its own.
HPV isn’t something to totally freak about—but it is something you can help protect yourself from getting. Sex comes with enough risks and concerns, why add HPV to the list? If you want to get the HPV vaccine, but you’re worried about your parents’ reaction, you may want to tell them this: Getting the HPV vaccine doesn’t make you any more likely to have sex, it just makes you less likely to get cancer. How can you argue with that? Need to strengthen your case? Here are some studies to prove it.