It can be very scary to learn that your partner has HPV. You may hear the diagnosis and be worried that they're going to die of cancer, or that cancer is now going to affect you. However, HPV is extremely common, and most people with the virus never go on to develop cancer. In fact, many never have symptoms at all. Furthermore, when people do develop HPV-related cancers, they are usually extremely treatable. When caught early, treatment may simply involve removal of affected tissue. There is also data that oral cancers associated with HPV infection are more susceptible to radiation than similar tumors with other causes.
Therefore, if you've just learned that your partner has HPV, don't panic. It's far from the end of the world. In fact, it may not change your life much at all. The best thing you can do is sit back, take a deep breath, and learn more about the virus.
Here are answers to some of the most pressing questions people have when they learn they are dating someone with HPV.
Do I have HPV Too?
When you're a young man whose female sexual partner has just called to tell you that she's been diagnosed with HPV, it can be hard to know what to do. Unlike most other STDs, there's no convenient way to get screened for HPV. There's no commercial test used to detect the genital virus in men. Furthermore, although testing for oral HPV is available, it isn't widely recommended. Just as most genital HPV infections will never cause warts or cancer, neither will most oral infections. Therefore, many doctors see testing as unnecessary.
For women, testing is only slightly easier. There is a cervical HPV test, but it isn't generally used for women in their 20s unless they've had an abnormal Pap smear. That's both because most HPV infections will never cause problems and because HPV is ubiquitous in young women who haven't been vaccinated. The CDC estimates that at least half of all sexually active adults will be infected at some point in their lives - and historically that estimate has been as high as 80 percent. A 2008 study found that 18 percent of girls had already been infected by the time they turned 19.
Should I Break Up With My Partner?
As I mentioned above, the majority of sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. Most of them will never know they have it. It will never cause visible symptoms, such as genital warts, and it won't lead to cancer. While HPV infection can be serious, it doesn't have to be. In fact, it rarely is.
The fact that you know your partner has HPV could be seen as a good thing. Many people's partners are infected, and they don't have a clue. They can't have open and honest discussions about sexual risk. They don't know that it's possible to reduce the risk of transmission during oral sex.
Learning that your partner has HPV isn't a reason to break up with them. It may inspire you to be better about practicing safe sex, but the truth is, I think that most people should work from the assumption that their partners have HPV. It's true a good percentage of the time, even if there's often no way to find out.
How Can I Reduce My Risk of Getting HPV?
You can't completely protect yourself against HPV infection. However, there are several ways you can reduce your risk. One of the best ways is to consider being vaccinated, if you haven't been already. Ideally, you would have been vaccinated before you started having sex -- that's why children are supposed to start the vaccination series at age 11 or 12 -- but it is possible to get vaccinated through your mid-20s. That said, it may not be of much help if you're reading this because you know you have already been exposed. It won't hurt. It just may not offer protection.
The other way to reduce your HPV risk is to practice safer sex - for both oral sex and intercourse. HPV spreads through skin to skin contact, so barriers aren't 100 percent protective, but they do reduce the risk of transmission.
- Using condoms for vaginal intercourse can reduce your risk of cervical and penile cancer.
- Practicing safer anal sex can reduce the risk of anal and penile cancer.
- Practicing safer cunnilingus and fellatio can reduce the risk of throat and oral cancers.
These cancers are not hugely common, but they are on the rise.
Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet. (2012). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 7, 2012
Joseph AW, D'Souza G. (2012). Epidemiology of human papillomavirus-related head and neck cancer. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 45(4):739-64.
Previous Conferences - 2008 (Chicago, Illinois) Summaries of Highlighted Research, 11 March 2008. (2008) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 7, 2012
Rades D, Seibold ND, Gebhard MP, Noack F, Schild SE, Thorns C. (2011). Prognostic factors (including HPV status) for irradiation of locally advanced squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN). Strahlenther Onkol.187(10):626-32.