There is an amazing scene in Girls where Hannah Horvath, played by Lena Dunham, famously tweets “all adventurous women do” when she finds out she has human papillomavirus (HPV). She boldly taps it like Robyn’s song Dancing alone rooms. She then starts dancing and doesn’t feel so depressed by her diagnosis.
HPV is extremely common in Canada: in fact, the Government of Canada estimates that 75% of sexually active Canadians will have an HPV infection in their lifetime. Yet despite this fact – and despite Ali Wong jokingly saying that “everyone has HPV” – there is still stigma and confusion around this very common virus.
With all of this in mind, we wanted to lessen the stigma and break down what HPV really is and what it means to you, your sex life, and your health. Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with HPV, educating yourself can help you support friends or loved ones who may be affected.
(Disclaimer: This advice is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified healthcare professional. Always seek medical advice specific to your situation..)
What is HPV?
HPV stands for “human papilloma virus”. As the Canadian Cancer Society explains, HPV is actually “a group of over 100 different types of viruses,” more than 40 of which are transmitted through sexual contact. Some types of HPV can infect the genitals and cause cervical cancer, genital warts, and warts elsewhere on your body.
How to contract HPV?
HPV is most commonly transmitted through sexual contact, but it can also be transmitted through other skin-to-skin contact – although the Canadian Cancer Society points out that it “is not spread through casual contact, such as hugging, handshakes, sneezing or coughing”.
What are the symptoms of HPV in women and men?
Many strains of HPV don’t really affect you or show symptoms. In many cases like this, the virus is basically in your body, but the symptoms don’t show up.
However, HPV is linked to almost all cervical cancers. Education around HPV focuses primarily on cervical cancer prevention. As a result, many people think that only women can get HPV, but HPV is not gender specific.
Certain strains of HPV can also cause penile cancer (very rare) and anal cancer. HPV is also one of the main causes of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neckalso known as oral cavity and throat cancer.
HPV can also cause warts. If sexually transmitted, these warts appear in the genital area. But you can also get warts on your feet or other parts of your body from HPV. So doing things like wearing flip flops in a locker room can help prevent the virus from spreading to you.
As the American Academy of Dermatology Association explains“HPV thrives in warm, moist areas. When your skin is moist and soft, it is easier to get infected with HPV. Shoes and flip-flops help protect your feet from the virus, which can prevent plantar warts.
How do you know if you have HPV?
As stated earlier, HPV infections often do not cause symptoms and HPV is not part of routine testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Only abnormal pap tests or physical symptoms will usually trigger an HPV test.
If you receive an abnormal Pap test result, there will be further tests for HPV and to determine if you have precancerous or cancerous cells in your cervix. You can find out more about the HPV test via the Canadian Cancer Society here.
What if I have HPV?
Zeitouni and sex[M]The ed team spends a lot of time fighting the stigma around STIs. Although HPV can be transmitted non-sexually, a very common way to contract it is through sex, so it is treated with the same stigma as other STIs.
“I think if people really knew the facts about HPV, there wouldn’t be such stigma,” says Zeitouni. “Something so common should not be stigmatized. Yes, it is sexually related, however, many people have sex.
Then your doctor do other tests. If your strain of HPV is associated with cervical cancer, you may need to have a colposcopy (an examination of the cervix) to remove precancerous cells or a biopsy for further treatment.
Should I disclose HPV to my sexual partners?
This is a difficult question to answer. Canadian law does not require you to disclose you have HPV to future, current or past partners, indicating that “HPV infection is not a reportable disease in Canada”.
Lack of HPV education can make it difficult to have a conversation with a sexual partner if they don’t know what an HPV diagnosis entails.
“I think it’s a good thing to talk about it, if you have the comfort and the confidence with someone to talk about these things and want to educate them,” Zeitouni says.
How can I protect myself against HPV? Or give it to other people?
Condoms and dental dams can help reduce transmission of HPVbut they do not completely protect it because it is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact.
Zeitouni encourages everyone to consider getting the HPV vaccine. You may have already received an HPV vaccine in college, so check your vaccination records. But otherwise there is a catch-up schedule for 12 to 26 year olds. If you’re 27 or older and haven’t had your HPV vaccine, talk to your doctor.
Provincial health care does not always cover the HPV vaccine for those who did not receive it at school. The cost varies with different brands of vaccine. In Toronto, each dose of the HPV vaccine costs $215. You usually need three dosesit can therefore cost up to $645 to be fully protected.
It may not be financially feasible for you, and if so, don’t worry. Take safe sex precautions and keep track of your Pap tests and STI screenings. If you take anything away from this article, know that HPV is common and you are not alone.
“We wouldn’t judge someone for having cancer caused by smoking,” says Zeitouni. “So why would we judge someone for having cancer caused by HPV?”
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