"Your results show that you have HPV (human papillomavirus). This is an 'HPV positive' result." I re-read the letter's first line again, confused, my heart beginning to beat a little quicker. What is HPV? Is it an STI? Does it mean I'm going to get cervical cancer? I had the HPV vaccine when I was younger. Still, I had no knowledge of what the infection actually was when I received my results.
As is common with any medical diagnosis, my brain went into overdrive and I began consulting Doctor Google to find out more information. I learned that people widely misunderstand the human papillomavirus despite its high prevalence.
HPV carries a lot of confusion, fear, and shame. In this blog, I will provide you with clarity on the infection. I'll explain the implications of being diagnosed with it, and aim to ease your mind if you find yourself in this situation.
What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common sexually transmitted infection. There are over 100 different types and 4 in 5 people get a genital HPV infection at some point. Most HPV infections clear up on their own as your immune system learns to fight the virus, so if you've been diagnosed - don't panic. Some types of HPV can lead to other health problems. In rare cases it can cause cancer, which is why it's vital to attend a regular cervical cancer screening.
How did I get HPV?
"How is this possible?" I wondered when I received the diagnosis. I'm in a relationship and my partner and I both took STI tests before we started having sex. Had he been unfaithful? If you're thinking the same, it's unlikely, and here's why.
Females have an HPV test during our cervical screening. The infection often doesn't present symptoms and can go undiagnosed for a long time. It's possible my partner was carrying the virus when we became sexually active. Or maybe I was carrying the HPV infection first, from a previous partner. Our STI tests weren't testing for this.
People can transmit HPV through vaginal and anal sex, as well as through oral sex and skin-to-skin contact with others carrying the virus.
Why is HPV so common?
This virus affects 80% of the population, has no symptoms, and is passed through sexual contact. It's no surprise it's so common! Most cases are discovered during a cervical cancer screening as HPV tests are not included in routine sexual health check-ups. Even condoms are not 100% effective at preventing HPV transmission. This is because the virus lives in the surface layers of the skin.
Are HPV and genital warts the same thing?
The majority of HPV strains have no symptoms at all. Types 6 and 11 can cause genital warts which appear as a small bump(s) in the genital area. Sometimes they look like cauliflowers.
Genital warts aren't painful nor a serious threat to your health, but they can be passed on through sexual contact. You shouldn't have sex if you have visible genital warts. The sooner you get them treated the better. A doctor will prescribe you a topical cream. You could also have them frozen off with liquid nitrogen (by a medical professional, do not try this at home!)
Are HPV and herpes the same thing?
No, human papillomavirus and herpes are caused by two different and unrelated viruses. They are often confused as they are both sexually transmitted and can result in genital lesions, but herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are only two strains of HSV. HSV-1 usually causes cold sores and HSV-2 is the virus strain that usually causes genital herpes.
If I have HPV will I get cervical cancer?
It's highly unlikely, remember there are over 100 types of HPV and most of them are harmless, so if you've just been diagnosed, it doesn't mean you're going to get cervical cancer. In most cases your body will clear it, even if you have what is considered to be a high-risk HPV infection.
More commonly, an infection can cause abnormal cells in the cervix (cervical dysplasia), which would be picked up on your cervical screening. Getting an abnormal result does not mean you have cancer. It means there is a risk that the cells could turn into cancer if not treated. You may be invited for a colposcopy if abnormal cells are discovered, which is a similar procedure to a smear test. A doctor will have a closer look at your cervix, take a biopsy, and make a diagnosis.
Other HPV-related cancers include vulvar cancer, penile cancer, anal cancer, and cancers in the mouth and throat.
How can I get rid of HPV?
Unfortunately, there's no treatment to get rid of HPV infections, you just have to let your immune system do its thing. HPV vaccines can reduce the health risks presented by the virus, and were first made available for girls in 2006. Evidence shows that the HPV vaccine helps to protect anyone, regardless of gender, from human papillomavirus-related conditions and cancers. The 3 effective HPV vaccines protect against the two types of high-risk infections that can cause cervical cancer, as well as other types that cause genital warts.
Try not to worry about "getting rid" of the infection, instead focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle - you are more at risk of any illness if you have a weakened immune system.
90% of new HPV infections are cleared naturally by the body within 2 years of being diagnosed. - CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
What happens if my HPV infection won't go away?
If you experience a persistent HPV infection which does not go away on its own, there are several management options available. The appropriate course of action depends on factors such as the type of HPV, the presence of abnormal cells or precancerous cells, and your overall health. Your doctor will discuss this with you and decide what steps to take next.
These steps are likely to be:
- Monitoring: In some cases your doctor may recommend regular monitoring to observe any changes over time.
- Treatment of abnormal cells: If your HPV infection leads to abnormal cells, you may be recommend further testing. This could include a colposcopy to examine the cervix or other affected areas more closely. Treatment options for abnormal cells may include procedures to remove or destroy the affected tissue, such as cryotherapy, laser therapy, or loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP).
How can I boost my immune system?
The best ways to boost your immune system include eating well, staying fit, getting enough rest, and taking vitamins. Weakened immune systems make us more susceptible to experiencing illness.
Diet. A balanced and healthy diet is vital to maintaining a strong immune system, so try to eat a rainbow selection of vegetables and fruit daily. Focus on consuming whole grains and limit refined grains, sugar, and alcohol. It's also important to ensure your body gets enough protein.
Exercise. Exercise builds your immune system and helps your overall health by boosting blood and lymph flow and increasing the circulation of immune cells in your body. You don't have to spend hours in the gym or run marathons - even a daily brisk walk can help you get the benefits.
Sleep. Studies show that lack of sleep can affect your immune system and reduce infection-fighting antibodies and cells. When you are sleeping your immune system releases cytokines, which are proteins that the body requires when you have an infection, inflammation, or are under stress.
Vitamins. Vitamin C and Vitamin D are the heroes of the vitamin world when it comes to boosting immunity. You can find both in food, but it's best to take a supplement to ensure you get enough. Gut health also plays an important role - keep your gut bacteria happy to support your immune system by taking a probiotic.
Is it normal to feel ashamed about HPV?
There's so much shame and anxiety around the topics of sex, sexual health, and sexually transmitted infections and here at iPlaySafe, we're passionate about changing this narrative. If you have HPV or any other STI for that matter, you have nothing to be ashamed of. This is something most sexually active adults experience at some time during their lives.
Imagine if during sex education classes at school we actually learned how normal and easily transmitted these infections are, instead of viewing them as something taboo and dirty. Let's think of HPV as a common cold of the vagina. Let me reassure you right now - if your HPV test comes back positive, it's not a big deal, it's not embarrassing, and your sex life definitely isn't over.
Best tips to maintain great sexual health
I want to finish this blog by sharing a couple of tips to help you look after your sexual health in general. Too often we think of our health as something purely aesthetic - we diet and go to the gym to make us look good, but let's make sure we're focusing on what's happening on the inside too.
Make STI tests a priority for your wellbeing. If you're sexually active, stay on top of your STI tests. You no longer have to go to a sexual health clinic and sit in a waiting room dreading bumping into someone you know. It's so simple and convenient to test yourself now. You can buy at-home STI testing kits through the iPlaySafe website here, and your results will be sent to you via the free app.
- Attend your cervical cancer screening. Even if you've had the HPV vaccine you can still be susceptible to a new HPV infection. Attending a regular smear test (sometimes referred to as a pap test) is the best way to prevent cervical cancer risk, as the test looks out for cervical cell changes.
- Talk to your partner(s). Open and honest communication with a partner is so important. Whether you're in a relationship, a situationship, or it's just a hookup, do you know your sexual health status? Do they know theirs? Be proactive in looking after your health, not reactive.