Most of us know the basics: we need to see our gyno yearly and get a pap every once in a while to prevent cervical cancer. Some of us know that our paps test for HPV. Many of us have had abnormal pap results. But outside of that…umm…we’re not really sure. HPV is a very complicated topic, but it’s an important one: we guesstimate that 70-80% of the population has been exposed to at least one strand of the HPV virus. But before you freak out (seriously, stay calm here!) it’s important to get educated.

First, the basics: HPV is short for the Human Papilloma Virus and is a skin-to-skin contact virus. So….does that mean it’s an STI (sexually transmitted infection)? Technically speaking, yes. But in a lot of ways, it’s different from those STI’s we’re more familiar with. Men do not know if they have HPV, can’t get tested for it (yet), and it rarely causes them any problems. And this is when the choir of women chimes in with “and we have to have the babies TOO?!”. Unfortunately, in this category, women got dealt the shorter end of the stick (again, ugh). We’re also not sure the virus ever goes away once you’ve gotten it. In most instances, once we’ve been exposed to a strain of the virus, our body will eventually recognize the strain and create antibodies to suppress it. Once that strain is suppressed, a pap won’t pick it up, and your immune system has done what it’s capable of!

In some instances, our body is not able to suppress it. So what happens then? Occasionally, people continually have abnormal pap results (and persistent HPV) that neither becomes totally suppressed nor progresses. This is usually just a total pain for that person, because it means more frequent trips to the gyno. Unfortunately, for some, the virus progresses over time. This also means more trips to the gyno—and potentially a procedure or two to prevent cervical cancer and rid the cervix or vagina of precancerous cells.

The good news, and bottom line to this, is that HPV does NOT equal cervical cancer, and that cervical cancer can generally be prevented by showing up for all of the appointments your provider has requested you to. Listen to your provider’s recommendations for follow-up, don’t take up smoking cigarettes if you haven’t already (this can decrease immune response), and take care of yourself and your body. If you do these things, feel good about the fact that you’re taking the all the right steps to protect your health.

Common HPV questions

-Does this mean my current partner gave it to me?

There’s no way to know. While it’s possible your current partner gave it to you, it’s also possible a previous partner could be to blame. Why? The HPV virus can remain undetected for years, meaning a pap won’t pick it up.

-Does my partner need to be treated?

No. There is no test or treatment for men, as they are rarely affected by the virus. Lucky them.

-If I have HPV, am I definitely going to get cervical cancer now?

Nope! The presence of the HPV virus does not mean you’re suddenly a ticking time bomb. Generally speaking, your immune system will take care of it. It is not the presence of the virus that concerns healthcare providers—it is the persistence and progression of the virus over time.

-If I have genital warts, am I going to have an abnormal pap and vice versa?

There are MANY strains of the HPV virus. The strains that cause genital warts are not the strains that cause abnormal paps or cervical cancer. The strains that cause abnormal paps are not the strains that cause genital warts. They’re all different.

-Is HPV or cervical cancer hereditary?

Nope. Since HPV is a skin-to-skin contact virus, and cervical cancer is caused by HPV, it is not hereditary.

-Does this affect my future fertility?

No. A simple low grade abnormal pap, or the presence of HPV in general, does not have an effect on future fertility. If any procedures need to be done (dependent on your pap results) your provider can discuss with you then any specific risks and benefits.

-If I’ve already tested positive for HPV, why should I still get the HPV vaccine if I haven’t yet?

HPV encompasses A LOT of varying strains. If you’ve been exposed to HPV, you’ve been exposed to one or two strains of the virus, not all of them. The vaccine now covers 9 strains of the virus: those strains we deem highest risk (can lead to cervical cancer) and the two strains we know can cause genital warts (I’m assuming you probs don’t want those). Protect yourself from the other strains and get the the vaccine if you haven’t already! Talk to your provider about insurance coverage.

-So why is exercise good in terms of HPV?

Keeping your body healthy is important to the overall function of your immune system. A good immune system can, generally, pick up on HPV and create antibodies to the virus. Once your immune system has done what it’s capable of, the virus will become undetectable to a pap (which means it’s definitely not concerning to us as providers!). Take care of your body and don’t start smoking if you haven’t already (or think about quitting or cutting back if you do).