There’s 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 types this out as Robyn’s song Dancing on My Own plays. She then starts dancing and doesn’t feel so down about her diagnosis.
HPV is incredibly common in Canada: in fact, the Government of Canada estimates that 75 per cent 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’s still stigma and confusion around this very common virus.
With all this in mind, we wanted to loosen the stigma and break down what HPV really is and what it means for you, your sex life and your health. Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with HPV, educating yourself can help you support your friends or loved ones who may be affected.
(Disclaimer: This advice is not intended to substitute as advice of a qualified healthcare professional. Always seek medical advice that is specific to your situation.)
What is HPV?
HPV stands for “human papillomavirus.” As the Canadian Cancer Society explains, HPV is actually “a group of more than 100 different types of viruses,” more than 40 of which are spread through sexual contact. Some types of HPV can infect the genitals and cause cervical cancer, genital warts and warts elsewhere on your body.
How do I get HPV?
HPV is most often transmitted through sexual contact, but it can also be transmitted through other skin-to-skin contact — though the Canadian Cancer Society points out that it is “not spread by casual contact, such as hugging, shaking hands, sneezing or coughing.”
What are the symptoms of HPV in women and men?
Many strains of HPV don’t really affect you or showcase any symptoms. In many cases like this, the virus is essentially just in your body, but the symptoms don’t manifest.
However, HPV is linked to almost all cervical cancers. Education around HPV mainly focuses on the prevention of cervical cancer. As a result, a lot of people think that only women can get HPV, but HPV is not gender-specific.
Some HPV strains can also cause penile cancer (very rare) and anal cancer. HPV is also a leading cause of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, also known as cancer of the oral cavity and the throat.
HPV can also cause warts. If transmitted sexually, these warts appear in the genital region. But you can also have 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 transmitting to you.
As the American Academy of Dermatology Association explains, “HPV thrives in warm, moist areas. When your skin is moist and soft, it’s easier to get infected with HPV. Shoes and flip-flops help protect your feet from the virus, which can prevent plantar warts.”
How can you know if you have HPV?
As previously noted, HPV infections often don’t cause symptoms, and HPV isn’t part of routine tests for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Only abnormal Pap tests or physical symptoms will generally 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 learn more about HPV testing via the Canadian Cancer Society here.
What happens if I have HPV?
The first thing: don’t panic! This advice comes courtesy of Camille Zeitouni, the co-founder of Sexed, an organization “combatting sexual health inequities by providing comprehensive sexual health education to healthcare practitioners.”
Zeitouni and the Sexed team spend a lot of time fighting the stigma around STIs. Though HPV can be transmitted in non-sexual ways, a very common way to get it is through sex, so it’s treated with the same stigma as other STIs.
“I think if people really knew the facts on HPV, there wouldn’t be such stigma around it,” Zeitouni says. “Something that’s so common shouldn’t be stigmatized. Yes, it’s sexually related, however, a lot of people have sex.”
Next, your doctor will do further tests. If your HPV strain is associated with cervical cancer, you may need to undergo a colposcopy (a cervical examination) to remove precancerous cells, or a biopsy for further treatment.
Do I need to disclose HPV to sexual partners?
This is a tricky question to answer. Canadian law doesn’t require you to disclose that you have HPV to future, current or past partners, stating that “infection with HPV is not a notifiable condition in Canada.”
The lack of education around HPV can make it a hard conversation to have with a sexual partner if they do not know what an HPV diagnosis entails.
“I do think it’s a good thing to talk about, if you have the comfort and trust with someone to talk about these things and want to educate them,” Zeitouni says.
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How do I protect myself against HPV? Or from giving it to other people?
Condoms and dental dams can help reduce the transmission of HPV, but they don’t fully protect against it because it is spread through skin-to-skin contact.
Zeitouni encourages everyone to consider getting vaccinated against HPV. You may have already received an HPV vaccine in middle school, so check your vaccine records. But if not, there is a catch-up schedule for 12- to 26-year-olds. If you’re 27 or older and haven’t gotten your HPV vaccine, talk to your doctor about getting it.
Provincial healthcare doesn’t always cover the HPV vaccine for those who didn’t get it in school. The cost varies for the different brands of vaccine. In Toronto, each HPV vaccine dose costs $215. You usually need three doses, so it could cost up to $645 to be fully protected.
It may not be financially feasible for you, and if that’s the case, don’t beat yourself up about it. Take safe sex precautions and keep up with your Pap tests and STI screenings. If you take one thing away from this article, know that HPV is common, and you aren’t alone.
“We wouldn’t judge someone for getting cancer caused by smoking,” Zeitouni says. “So why would we judge someone about getting a cancer caused by HPV?”
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