April marks the beginning of STI Awareness Month. And maybe you are aware ... but are you talking to your partners about your risk?
At one point in their lives, 75% of sexually active women will have the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is notorious for being confusing. It's complicated - it's linked to several cancers, it can cure itself (but sometimes it doesn't), it can involve painful procedures for some, while for others it's no big deal. Most recently, we've learned that HPV is linked to throat cancer and could possibly be linked to heart disease. It's a lot of information (and misinformation) and it's even more convoluted when another person is involved.
So, how can we create a dialogue where all people involved are addressed, one that includes informative and responsible resources? Here we'll look t how to talk to your partner about HPV.
Assess Your Risk (and Get Tested)
The best way to begin the conversation is to have a supportive foundation and then work through the diagnosis. If you've been infected with HPV, then a conversation should lead towards how you and your partner will support one another. If you haven't been diagnosed yet, consider the health risks and the precautions for avoiding the infection.
Diagnosis typically begins with an abnormal Pap test. For most patients, there are few or no symptoms that suggest that there is an infection. When your doctor calls to follow up with results, an "abnormal" response can be, quite literally, terrifying. Discuss these emotions with your partner so they understand the full spectrum of how distressing this experience may be for you. Having a supportive partner is key, but the diagnosis does affect both of you, and should involve a conversation about what that means.
That said, even though HPV is infectious, it doesn't mean that both partners have the infection. Corey R. Babb, a Clincal Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Oklahoma State University says, "If your immune system is lowered (through medication, medical conditions, etc.), you may be at a greater risk of contracting the disease. The opposite of this is also true, as people with strong immune systems can become infected, and then clear the virus (much like getting over a cold) without ever having symptoms of infection."
So, what happens after the abnormal Pap? Educate yourself and your partner on colposcopies and biopsies, which will typically happen after HPV is detected. For some people, a colposcopy can be a bit painful and involve some cramping. The procedure looks for precancerous cells (HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer).
How Did We Get Here?
The topic of how a partner contracted HPV may arise eventually. The virus is spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex, but it's essential to not place any blame. There are no tests for males to screen for HPV but Pap tests do screen for it, which means that women are often blamed for contracting the disease (when, in fact, the opposite may be true). HPV can also lie dormant for up to 15 years so there is no telling where either of you contracted the infection. If you're in a monogamous relationship, it's imperative to note that an HPV diagnosis doesn't necessarily mean that one partner has been unfaithful.
Plus, because of all the subtypes of HPV, it's hard to define specific symptoms for infection. "Some people have no symptoms, while others have an initial flu-like reaction when first infected," Babb said. "Because HPV can be asymptomatic, it's very important to get routine screenings (pap smears, blood tests) to detect the virus in early stages, and treat issues as they arise."
It's also important to read up on the difference between an abnormal Pap test and cervical cancer -they are by no means the same - although they are closely linked. Just because you have an abnormal Pap doesn't mean you have cancer. Talk to your partner about this (and also, educate yourself) on how untreated precancerous cells may turn into cancer, but most likely will not.
Dealing With HPV in Your Relationship
When it comes to talking about - and dealing with - HPV in your relationship, the most important things to do are:
- Support one another
- Avoid blaming each other
- Don't jump to conclusions about whether your partner has been faithful
- Be emotionally present and available
HPV in New Relationships
Now, let's say you're single right now, or not seeing anyone particular partner: is it necessary to inform your future partner or a future conquest of your HPV?
Well, yes. HPV transfers very easily from person to person. While some doctor's say that it's totally fine to keep HPV history a secret from a future partner, it probably isn't the ethical thing to do. Since condoms don't necessarily protect you from contracting HPV, and most women eventually have the virus, it's definitely a good idea to discuss a "what if" situation with someone you are dating.
In contrast, Babb says, "Since most strands of HPV are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact (and therefore, sexually), it's very important to talk about your current HPV status with potential partners prior to the onset of sexual activity. In addition, being upfront with your partner from the start about current HPV infections (or any sexually transmitted infections) can help build trust in a relationship."
If the shame of HPV is keeping you from telling a partner, it's time to eradicate the myth that STIs make you "dirty." Jen Doll wrote on the Village Voice that, "No one wants to admit it, no one talks about it, and when people do, it's in whispers and there's a lot of misinformation. But what if you knew that almost everyone you knew had at one point had (or currently has) HPV? Would you feel less ashamed? If all of us have had it, and all of us admit it, doesn't it take the shame out of it?"
To move forward, just remember that both you and your partner(s) need to keep a safe and healthy diet and lifestyle. Moreover, if you're sexually active and haven't been infected, consider getting the HPV vaccine. Keep that in mind and seek out preventative measures when sexually active. Refrain from smoking, and make sure to eat well and stay active - the healthier you are, the less likely you are to have serious repercussions from HPV if you do contract it.
This month is STI Awareness Month. So, let's celebrate by talking about one of the most common STIs with our partners.