Living Well With HPV: 5 Steps for Safer Sex
If you know you’re infected with HPV, either because of symptoms or a positive test, you can take steps to practice safer sex and reduce the risk of infecting your partner.
More than half of all men and women who are?sexually active?will be infected by the?human papillomavirus (HPV)?at some time in their lives.
But “most?women?and?men?with the virus will never know they have it,” says Vanessa Cullins, MD, MPH, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist and the vice president for medical affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Most people infected with HPV do not develop?any symptoms?or health problems from the virus because the body’s immune system is able to fight off the infection.
“For the overwhelming majority of people, having an HPV infection has no impact on their lives,” Dr. Cullins says.
Still, some people do develop genital warts, which are caused by certain types of HPV, and some women learn they have HPV after an abnormal Pap smear, in which cells from the cervix are examined for cancerous or precancerous changes, or after an HPV test of cervical cells.
For others, the first indication of an HPV infection is a diagnosis of anal, vulvar, vaginal, penile, or oropharyngeal cancer.
There are currently no screening tests for detecting HPV infection in these areas of the body. Signs of cancer may include redness, irritation, sores that don’t heal, abnormal bleeding, itching, pain, and lumps. If you experience any of these symptoms in your genital or anal regions or mouth or throat, see a doctor promptly to get it checked out.
How to Lower Your Risk of HPV Infection and Transmission
If you know you’re infected with HPV — or even if you don’t know — what should you do to safeguard yourself and your sexual partner from HPV transmission?
First, assume you will be living with some type of HPV virus at some point in your life. “Everyone who is sexually active, vaccinated or not, should make this assumption,” Cullins says.
Then consider these steps to help protect yourself and anyone with whom you have intimate contact.
1. Get Vaccinated and Encourage Your Partner to Get Vaccinated
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all boys and girls get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12 — likely before they’ve been exposed to sexually transmitted strains of the human papillomavirus.
If you didn’t get the vaccine as an adolescent, it may not be too late. In October 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expanded its approval of the HPV vaccine currently used in the United States — Gardasil 9 — to include adults up to age 45, vastly increasing the numbers of people eligible to receive the vaccine and the protection it provides.
FDA approval of the vaccine does not guarantee that health insurance will cover the cost of it, so adults ages 27 to 45 who are interested in being vaccinated against HPV should check with their insurer first to make sure they’re not faced with surprise medical expenses.
An earlier form of Gardasil protected against just four types of HPV: types 6 and 11, which cause warts, and types 16 and 18, which raise the risk of cancer.
Another HPV vaccine, Cervarix, is no longer available in the United States but is used elsewhere in the world. It protects only against HPV types 16 and 18.
The HPV vaccine has been found to be both safe and effective, and when possible, it should be your first-line strategy for preventing HPV infection.
2. Use Condoms When Having Sex
HPV is spread by direct contact, so you should use?condoms?every time you have sex — from start to finish. Consistent use of condoms will reduce your risk for HPV transmission, but it will not completely eliminate it. The virus can be on areas of the skin not covered by the condom. You should use condoms or dental dams for vaginal, oral, or anal sex, and never reuse condoms.
3. Get Regular Medical and Dental Checkups
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF)?recommends that women start getting screened for cervical cancer at age 21. Between ages 21 and 29, according to the USPSTF women should have a Pap test every three years to look for early signs of cancer.
For women ages 30 to 65, the USPSTF recommends screening with Pap tests alone every three years, or a combination of Pap tests and HPV tests every five years.
Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV infection, and it is typically curable if found early.
While there are no equivalent screening tests to detect precancerous conditions of the anus, genitals, mouth, or throat, “routine preventive dental and medical care is one of the best prescriptions for ongoing health,” Cullins says.
4. Learn to Identify HPV?Symptoms
Know the symptoms of HPV-related infections so you can be on the lookout for them in yourself and your partner.
HPV can cause genital warts, which usually appear as a small, flat bump or groups of bumps in the genital area. If not treated, genital warts can grow larger.
If you or your partner is?being treated for an HPV-related infection, you should refrain from having sex until treatment is completed.
RELATED: HPV Warts: The Misunderstood STD
5. Practice Good Genital Hygiene
After having sex, urinate to rinse any germs from your urethra, and wash your genitals with soap and water. This can help clean away bacteria or viruses before they have time to infect you.
Additional reporting by Ingrid Strauch.