Women are often hesitant when it comes to talking about sexually transmitted infections - sometimes feeling fearful of stigma or of judgement about their sex life. But there’s truly nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about; the majority of sexually active women will get a sexually transmitted infection in their lifetime, and it’s more than likely the human papillomavirus (HPV).
One of the most common sexually transmitted infections, HPV is often harmless and resolves on its own. Some women won’t even show symptoms or even know they’re infected.
But this virus isn’t 100% innocent; certain strains cause genital warts or cervical cancer, so it’s crucial to take steps to prevent infection and stringently monitor or treat existing infections.
Common. Treatable. Preventable.
How do you get HPV?
HPV is most often an ‘invisible’ virus that doesn’t show outward symptoms in women nor in men. It spreads from skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity, including:
- Genital-to-genital contact
- Mouth-to-genital contact
- Hand-to-genital contact
You’re still susceptible to getting and/or spreading the virus even if you didn’t have penetrative (vaginal or anal) sex, or even if your male partner didn’t ejaculate.
And since HPV can lie latent for weeks, months, or even years, it’s often not possible to pinpoint exactly when and how you acquired the virus.
Who’s most at risk for infection?
Both women and men are susceptible to getting HPV. Anyone who engages in sexual activity – no matter the gender of their partner or the type of sexual contact involved – can get the virus.
The risk of transmission increases for people who:
- Have more than 1 sexual partner
- Have sex with a partner who has multiple sex partners
- Don’t consistently use condoms or dental dams
- Have a weakened immune system
- Smoke cigarettes
How will you know you have it?
Your body’s natural immune response will usually resolve the majority of the 200 HPV strains, and you most likely won’t show any outward symptoms.
However, if you acquire one of the high-risk strains, you may have:
- Abnormal results on your pap smear
- Warts on the genitals, hands, feet, or respiratory system
Women who are infected with certain higher-risk strains are at an increased risk of developing complications like warts and/or cancer. While there’s currently no cure for HPV, there are steps you and your provider can take to prevent an infection from negatively impacting your health.
- Warts caused by HPV tend to grow and then stabilize. They’re harmless and many resolve on their own; thus immediate treatment is not often recommended. However, if they don’t clear up over time, your provider may suggest a topical cream or surgical removal.
- HPV strains that are linked to a high risk of cervical cancer require stringent follow up with your OBGYN. Your provider may recommend more frequent pap smears or a colposcopy to take a biopsy. Precancerous lesions often need to be removed through surgical procedures.
Prevention is Possible
HPV vaccines offer protection against 9 of the most high-risk strains, including those that cause 90% of cases of both cervical cancer and genital warts.
It’s most effective when given to girls at 11-12 years old, but you can get vaccinated at any point until age 45. Seven Hills providers offer the vaccine at many of our 15 locations.
The ultimate preventative measure is abstinence, but we honor sexuality as a vital part of your well-being. You can empower yourself with risk reduction techniques that will decrease your chances of getting and/or spreading the virus:
- Engage in safe sex by consistently using condoms and dental dams
- Reduce your number of sexual partners
Take Charge of Your Sexual Health
We believe that sexual health is nothing to be ashamed about; at Seven Hills you’ll find respectful and compassionate providers who understand the sensitivity and significance of HPV.