What Is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?

Q: I just found out I have HPV. What is it?

HPV (Human Papillomavirus) is the most common sexually transmitted disease, and it will infect 75% of young women before the age of 50, if they don’t get vaccinated. It’s the virus that causes genital and anal warts, abnormal pap smears, and cervical cancer. Even if you’re a virgin when you hook up with someone, you can end up with HPV- even if your partner has only slept with one other person.

This is not a disease of freaks and hoochies. (If it is, then I’m one of those hoochies, since I got it from my husband.  Poor guy.  He feels bad.) Even if you’re really careful, you can still get it, and next thing you know, you’ve got genital warts and cervical cancer. While they do reduce the risk of transmission, condoms don’t completely protect you, since your labia can touch the skin around your partner’s genitals, even with a condom on. All it takes is intimate genital touching between you and your partner.

Why is HPV so common and why is everyone talking about it?

The strains of HPV that tend to cause abnormal pap smears and cervical cancer don’t cause any problems in men. So they don’t even know they have it. Which means they’re passing it around from woman to woman, like a beach ball. You gotta wonder when the guy says, “Oh, that’s so weird. ALL my girlfriends have had abnormal pap smears.” Duh, dude. It’s you!

What can happen to you if you catch HPV?

HPV can cause warts, abnormal pap smears, and cervical cancer. Usually, warts are caused by HPV types 6 and 11, the two most common strains. These strains cause problems for both men and women, since men can get genital warts and anal warts as well. Asking your partner if he’s ever had warts can give you an idea of whether your partner might carry HPV.  But even if your partner says no, it doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. Some people carry the virus but their immune systems keep it from wreaking havoc on their genitals. Even so, they can shed the virus from their genitals and pass it along. Then if your immune system is weak one day, BOOM. There it is. Cauliflower crotch.

But warts are small potatoes, as far as HPV goes. HPV types 16 and 18 (the high risk types) can cause abnormal pap smears and cervical cancer.  That’s why it’s so important to get pap smears regularly. As long as you get your pap smear once a year, you will probably never get cancer. But you may very well wind up with an abnormal pap smear, the way I did. If that happens, you’ll have to get a procedure called a colposcopy, which is a microscope we gynecologists use to get up-close-and-personal with your cervix to make sure there’s no cancer.

If I have HPV, what should I tell my sexual partners?

To keep your karma clean, it’s not a bad idea to tell your past and future sexual partners. Chances are, more than half of them have already been exposed, and one of them was the one who gave it to you.  Because many strains of HPV do not cause problems for guys, your partner may not even know he has it. But technically, anyone who may have been infected by you should tell future sexual partners that they may carry HPV and may be able to transmit it. It gets very complicated, because your immune system may clear HPV from your system and make it undetectable at some point. So will you still be infectious five years from now? Probably not. But maybe. This is why it’s such a big problem. Some women seem to clear HPV, only to have it show up again when their immune system is suppressed, as it normally is during pregnancy.

What can I do if I have HPV?

Because HPV is a virus, there’s no real cure, the way there is for most bacteria. If you have warts, the warts can be treated. And if you have an abnormal pap smear, we investigate further with colposcopy, a test that helps us differentiate whether the abnormalities are mild or more severe. If they’re mild, we focus on supporting your immune system, while we take a wait-and-see approach, which means pap smears every three to six months until things get better or worse. If they get worse, it means treatment, like a LEEP (Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure), which is the surgical procedure I had to have a few years back. Believe me. It’s no fun. But it beats the Big C.

Natural treatments aimed at supporting the immune system can help you clear the virus, but ultimately, you’re at the mercy of your immune system.  So if you get HPV, you may have it for years.  If you have access to an integrative medicine doctor or naturopath, they  may be able to help you with some herbs and supplements that can stimulate your natural immune response.  But otherwise, it’s all about treating any problems the HPV causes. Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill that can erase HPV worries forever.

If I don’t already have HPV, how can I prevent it?

You can use condoms, which reduces, but doesn’t eliminate, the risk of contracting HPV.  You may also want to talk to your doctor about whether you are a candidate for Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. The vaccine is a series of three injections aimed at protecting you against the four most common strains of HPV- types 6, 11, 16, and 18, the types that cause 70% of cervical cancer and 90% of genital and anal warts. The vaccine is given as three injections over a six month period and is FDA approved for girls and women age 9 to 26. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommend that all girls be given the vaccine between the ages of 11 and 12.  There’s a lot of controversy about giving a young girl a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease. But we do it already. Babies get vaccinated against Hepatitis B, which is another STD.  When patients ask me whether I will vaccinate my own daughter, I tell them she’s still young, so more information about safety and efficacy will exist by the time she is old enough to get the vaccine.  Assuming it’s proven safe and effective, I will vaccinate her. If I didn’t and she ended up with cervical cancer, how would I answer her if she asked, “Mom, why didn’t you vaccinate me when you had the chance?”

Did that help? I know it’s more fun to talk about Signs From the Universe and Living The Question. But remember that Owning Your Health solidifies the foundation upon which you build creativity, spirituality, surrender, balance, love and all the other aspects you’re trying to OWN. Don’t get so stuck in your head that you forget your body.  Take care of yourselves, Pinkies!

This blog, and the book on which it is based, is a complement to - not a substitute for - professional advice and intervention, and is not intended to replace the advice of a gynecologist or medical professional, who should be consulted about any health care issues that may affect the individual reader. The information contained in this book is the product of observations made by the author in her practice, as well as her review of relevant literature in her field of expertise. The literature at times reflects conflicting opinions and conclusions. The views expressed herein are the personal views of the author and are not intended to reflect the views of any group or organization with whom the author is affiliated.

Dr. Lissa Rankin is an OB/GYN physician, an author, a nationally-represented professional artist, and the founder of Owning Pink, an online community committed to building authentic community and empowering women to get- and keep- their "mojo". Owning Pink is all about owning all the facets of what makes you whole- your health, your sexuality, your spirituality, your creativity, your career, your relationships, the planet, and YOU. Dr. Rankin is currently redefining women’s health at the Owning Pink Center, her practice in Mill Valley, California. She is the author of the forthcoming What's Up Down There? Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend (St. Martin's Press, September 2010).


In order to comment on BlogHer.com, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.