When Hannah Horvath, the 20-something protagonist of the hit HBO show Girls, discovers she has HPV, the first person she consults is not a doctor but her best friend, Marnie. Marnie is, if anything, more upset than Hannah herself and weeps upon hearing the news. “Oh my God,” she says. “What if you can’t have children?”
Later on in the episode, we find out Hannah’s friend Jessa is far more nonchalant attitude towards HPV. She herself has several strains of the virus, as she says “all adventurous women do.”
The reactions of the Girls characters showcase the range of common beliefs about HPV: that it’s extremely serious, that it’s no big deal, and everything in between. But what are the facts?
While there’s no scientifically proven link between HPV and a sense of adventure, it is true that HPV is an extremely common infection. In fact, with an estimated 79 million people infected—including four out of five women by age 50— HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Those numbers may sound scary, but there’s no need to panic. While some strains of HPV are associated with cervical cancer or genital warts, not all strains of HPV are correlated with health problems, and the body has an incredible ability to fight off most HPV infections on its own.
Learning the facts about HPV can help you know when to worry like a Marnie or when to remain cool like a Jessa, and help you take proactive steps toward protecting your health.
Myth: HPV always leads to cervical cancer or genital warts
Fact: While HPV infection is the leading cause of cervical cancer and a major cause of anal, vaginal, and penile cancers, the vast majority of people who are infected by HPV won’t develop cancer.
While we sometimes talk about HPV as one virus, there are actually over 100 different strains, of which 40 can infect the genitals, anus, mouth, and throat and 13 of these strains can cause cancer. These are known as “high-risk” strains, and types 16 and 18, specifically, are responsible for 70% of cervical cancers. uBiome’s sequencing-based SmartJane vaginal health test can determine not only whether HPV is present but which strain of it they have, so a doctor can help correctly diagnose and advise them.
So if you’ve tested positive for HPV, don’t go straight into Marnie mode – go to your healthcare provider instead. Chances are, your risk of developing cancer is quite low and, with proper monitoring, is even lower still.
Myth: If I contract HPV, I can take medicine to cure the infection.
Fact: There’s no recommended medicine to cure HPV infection.
People with genital warts may be given topical treatments (cream or ointment) to reduce the warts or may have the warts physically removed. For women with one of several high-risk HPV strains, doctors may decide to monitor the cervix to detect any sign of abnormality in the cells and will remove abnormal or precancerous cells to prevent them from developing into cervical cancer.
Myth: HPV leads to infertility.
Fact: The jury is still out on the precise relationship between HPV and infertility, but, based on the research that does exist, the risk is low. It has been shown that men who suffer from infertility have a higher rate of HPV. HPV can also have a negative effect on sperm motility (the sperm’s ability to swim) and can increase anti-sperm antibodies in the semen. Interestingly, some research shows that the HPV vaccine may be effective in increasing the fertility of men who have already contracted HPV.
There’s no conclusive evidence linking HPV to infertility in women, though there is some evidence that women with HPV may experience higher rates of pregnancy loss.
Myth: Condoms can protect me from HPV.
Fact: While condoms reduce your risk of HPV transmission, they don’t eliminate it entirely. That’s because HPV is also caused by skin-to-skin contact through activities like sexual penetration, genital rubbing, oral sex, or even contact of the skin around the genitals.
However, there are steps you can take to prevent the spread of HPV or to prevent the risk of cancer if you’re already acquired a high-risk strain of the virus. Safer sex practices, immunization, regular screenings, and good health habits can help protect you from HPV and HPV-related cancers.
While the protection against HPV isn’t 100%, you should still use condoms during penetrative or oral sex, especially if you don’t know your partner’s status or you have multiple partners. Also consider other barrier methods during non-penetrative or/genital or genital/genital contact, such as a dental dam (available at some pharmacies or women’s and community health centers).
There is also now a readily-available vaccination that offers some protection against several (but not all) of the high-risk and low-risk HPV strains. The CDC currently recommends this vaccination for women through age 26, and men through age 21; the vaccine is also recommended for certain populations over the age of 26.
Regular wellness screenings are also an important step in keeping you healthy and safe by monitoring what HPV strains you may have and making sure high-risk strains don’t develop into pre-cancer. As mentioned above, if clinically appropriate your doctor can order the SmartJane test to determine not only whether you have HPV, but which strain. If you do have a high-risk HPV strain, you and your doctor can then work together to come up with a plan to continue to monitor your health. Depending on your age and health history, this may include regular Pap smears, which are recommended once every three years for women between 21 and 65 years old (or every five years for women between age 30-65 who also have HPV testing done).
And, like most health conditions, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You can increase your amazing immune system’s ability to defeat HPV by keeping yourself healthy. A healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables, consciousness about your level of toxic chemical exposure, and boosting the power of your vaginal microbiome by encouraging Lactobacilli growth can all help your body fight HPV infection naturally.
HPV positive? Don’t panic.
If you test positive for HPV, or even just worry you’ve been exposed, it’s totally normal to be concerned. But the truth is, most sexually active people will acquire HPV at some point in their lives, and the vast majority of those people end up being just fine.
By busting myths and learning the facts, you can ditch unnecessary worry and focus on prevention to live a healthy, happy life. Talk to your healthcare provider about your risk of HPV infection or managing the HPV you may already have.
And, of course, if you need an extra reality check, you can always phone a friend.
April is STI Awareness Month! Talk to your healthcare provider about your vaginal health. uBiome’s SmartJane test identifies HPV, four common STIs, and other vaginal factors.