I’m going to open this article with a hard bit of truth that some people really struggle with: If you are a sexually active adult, chances are pretty high that you either have or have already had an HPV infection. HPV is so common that it’s often called “the common cold of the STI world”. Think about it, how many adults do you know that have never had a cold in their life? I’d be willing to bet most of you can’t think of a single adult who has never had a cold.
HPV is one of the most common viruses in the world, and there are more than 40 different strains of HPV that have specifically evolved to specifically thrive in the genitalia, including the penis, vagina, testicles and anus. Most strains can also survive on any skin or object that has recently touched an infected area. In fact, HPV can even be passed from person to person without any direct sexual contact. Things like intimate touching, sharing of intimate garments or devices, touching another person immediately after touching an infected area but before washing your hands, etc. It is so common that it is estimated that over 80% of women will have some strain of HPV before their 50th birthday.
For most people, HPV is completely asymptomatic and they never know that they have it, or sometimes they find out because of an abnormal pap smear result, not because of any symptoms they might show. For other people (depending on the strain) HPV may cause genital warts, changes in the cervix, or maybe even an itching sensation. Interestingly, if HPV is going to cause symptoms it is most likely to do so when the immune system is suppressed, like when you’re sick with something else or during pregnancy. People may miss symptomatic flare ups because they are distracted by another illness. The most commonly complained about symptom of HPV is the appearance of genital warts, which typically show up as raised flesh colored bumps around the genitals. Note: The types of HPV that cause genital warts are completely different from the types of HPV that cause cancer and ALL types of HPV are in no way related to HIV, AIDS or HSV (herpes).
For some people, genital warts will go away on their own in just a few weeks or months. Women who develop warts during the immune-suppressed state of pregnancy often find that the warts pass on their own pretty quickly after the pregnancy ends. If the warts do not go away on their own or if you are unwilling to wait for them to pass, your doctor will be able to treat them. Treatment of warts does involve some discomfort, but for many people it is worth it to rid themselves of the warts sooner rather than later. There are other, more dangerous, strains of HPV that may cause cervical cancer. Those strains are most effectively detected through pap-smear, so it’s important to get checked regularly.
Having an HPV infection is something you should let your partners know, but it’s certainly not something to freak out about. There are vaccines against some of the more common strains of HPV, so ask your doctor if a vaccine may be the right choice for you or a loved one. Always practicing safe sex can help to minimize your risk of infection or re-infection or of transmitting any strain of HPV you have to your partner or partners.