HPV refers to a group of more than 100 viruses. About 40 strains are considered to be a sexually transmitted infection (STI). These types of HPV are passed through skin-to-skin genital contact. This typically happens through vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
HPV is the most common STI in the United States. Approximately 79 million Americans have a strain of the virus. Each year, 14 million more Americans are infected. Half of all sexually active Americans will have HPV at some point in their lives.
Anyone who is sexually active is at risk for contracting the virus or spreading it to a partner. It’s possible to have HPV without showing symptoms for several years, if ever. When symptoms do appear, they usually come in the form of warts, such as genital warts or warts of the throat. Very rarely, HPV can also cause cervical cancer and other cancers of the genitals, head, neck, and throat.
Because HPV can go undetected for so long, you may not realize that you have the STI until after you’ve been through several sexual relationships. This can make it difficult to know when you first became infected.
If you find out that you have HPV, you should work with your doctor to come up with a plan of action. This generally includes talking with your sexual partners, past and present, about your diagnosis.
How to talk to your partner about HPV
Talking with your partner may cause more anxiety and concern than the diagnosis itself. These key points can help you prepare for your discussion and make sure that both you and your partner understand what’s next.
1. Educate yourself
If you have questions about your diagnosis, your partner will likely have some, too. Take time to learn more about your diagnosis. Find out whether your strain is considered to be high or low risk. Some strains may never cause any issues. Others may put you at a higher risk for cancer or warts. Knowing what the virus is, what needs to happen, and what it means for your future can help the two of you avoid unnecessary fears.
2. Remember: You didn’t do anything wrong
Don’t feel tempted to apologize for your diagnosis. HPV is very common, and if you’re sexually active, it’s one of the risks you face. It doesn’t mean that you or your partner (or previous partners) did anything wrong. Partners tend to share strains of the virus between them, which means it’s almost impossible to know where the infection started.
3. Talk at the right time
Don’t blindside your partner with the news at an inopportune time, such as while you’re grocery shopping or running Saturday morning errands. Schedule some time for just the two of you, free from distraction and obligation.
If you’re worried about answering your partner’s questions, you can ask for your partner to join you at a doctor’s appointment. There, you can share your news, and your doctor can help explain what has happened and what will happen moving forward. If you feel more comfortable telling your partner before an appointment with your doctor, you can schedule a follow-up discussion with your doctor once your partner knows about your diagnosis.
4. Explore your options
If you did your research before this discussion, you should feel fully equipped to tell your partner what comes next. Here are some questions to consider:
- Do either of you need any type of treatment?
- How did you discover your infection?
- Should your partner be tested?
- How could the infection affect your future?
5. Discuss your future
An HPV diagnosis shouldn’t be the end of your relationship. If your partner is upset or angry about the diagnosis, remind yourself that you’ve done nothing wrong. It may take some time for your partner to absorb the news and process what it means for your future together.
Although HPV doesn’t have a cure, its symptoms are treatable. Staying on top of your health, watching for new symptoms, and treating things as they occur can help the two of you live a healthy, normal life.
Busting the myths about HPV and intimacy
When you’re preparing to address your diagnosis with a partner, it’s a good idea to know the most common myths surrounding HPV— and how they’re wrong. This will help you and your partner better understand your risks, your options, and your future. It will also help you prepare for any questions your partner may have.
Myth #1: All HPV infections lead to cancer
That’s simply wrong. Of the more than 100 strains of HPV, only a small handful are connected to cancer. Although it’s true that HPV can cause several types of cancer, this is a very rare complication.
Myth #2: An HPV infection means someone wasn’t faithful
An HPV infection may remain dormant and cause zero symptoms for weeks, months, even years. Because sexual partners often share the virus between each other, it’s hard to know who infected whom. It’s very difficult to trace the original infection back to its origin.
Myth #3: I will have HPV for the rest of my life
Although it’s possible to experience recurrences of warts and abnormal cervical cell growth for the rest of your life, that isn’t always the case. You may have one episode of symptoms and never have another issue again. In that case, your immune system may be able to clear the infection entirely.
If you have a compromised immune system, you may face more recurrences than people whose immune systems are otherwise strong and fully functioning.
Myth #4: I always use a condom, so I can’t have HPV
Condoms do help protect against many STIs, including HIV and gonorrhea, which are shared through contact with bodily fluids. Still, HPV can be shared through intimate skin-to-skin contact, even when a condom is used. If you’re sexually active, it’s important to get screened for HPV regularly.
Myth #5: A normal STI screening will detect HPV if I have it
Not all STI screening tests include HPV as part of the standard list of tests. Your doctor may not test for HPV unless you show signs of a possible infection. Possible signs include warts or the presence of abnormal cervical cells during a pap smear. If you’re worried about the infection, you should ask for an HPV test.
If your partner shares their positive diagnosis with you, you may be wondering if you should be tested, too. In short, the answer is yes. The more you know, the better prepared you can be for future issues and concerns.
Getting an HPV test isn’t as easy as testing for some other STIs. The only HPV test approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is for women. It’s designed to detect HPV DNA in women over the age of 25. This test can help your doctor decide if you should undergo additional diagnostic tests for cervical cancer.
Make an appointment with your doctor, or visit your county’s department of health. Be sure to specifically request a screening for HPV. Not all standard STI tests will check for HPV, so be clear about what you’d like.
How to prevent HPV infection or transmission
HPV can be spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact. This means that using a condom may not protect against HPV in all cases. The only real way to keep you or your partner protected against an HPV infection is to abstain from sexual contact. That’s rarely ideal or even realistic in most relationships, though.
If you or your partner has a high-risk strain, you may need to discuss your options with your doctor. If the two of you remain in a monogamous relationship, you may share the virus back and forth until it goes dormant. At this point, your bodies may have built a natural immunity to it. You and your partner may still need routine exams to check for any possible complications.
What you can do now
HPV is the most common STI in America. If you’ve been diagnosed, you can be sure that you’re not the first person to face this issue.
When you find out about your diagnosis, you should:
- Ask your doctor questions about symptoms, treatment, and outlook.
- Do research using reputable web sites.
- Speak with your partner about the diagnosis.
Smart strategies for talking to your partners — both current and future — can help you be honest about your diagnosis while also caring for yourself.