I get questions all of the time about HPV and there seems to be a lot of confusion about it. This is likely because women aren’ really informed about it other than seeing the commercials on the television about getting the vaccine. For this reason, I decided I would write an article that summed up what you should know about HPV and why we test for it.
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First of all, what is HPV?
HPV stands for Human papillomavirus and is a group of viruses that can be contracted during skin-to-skin and mucosal genital contact. It can be spread by all types of sex including vagina, oral, and anal sex.
Why we care about HPV
We care about HPV because it can cause irregular cells on the cervix, which can progress to cervical cancer. HPV has also been linked to other types of cancers such as anal, vulva, and oropharynx – but these are thought to be quite rare. HPV strains can also cause genital warts in the vaginal area, which can be uncomfortable and embarrassing.
There are two main categories of HPV
It’s important to note that there are two main categories of HPV: high-risk HPV and low-risk HPV.
High-risk HPV means these strains of HPV are most commonly linked to causing irregular cells on the cervix, meaning these strains are most commonly linked to causing cancer. The most notable of these strains are HPV types 16 and 18, which are strains of HPV that cause over 70% of cervical cancers.
Low-risk HPV means these strains of HPV have a very low likelihood of causing changes to the cervix or causing cancer. The HPV types 6 and ll cause up to 90% of all cases of genital warts. The annoying thing about this category of HPV is that these are the types of HPV that cause genital warts.
Your body can get rid of HPV on its own
The good news about HPV is that 90% of cases of HPV will clear up on their own, without any intervention. This is why you will be asked to be seen every 3 months or every 6 months for a pap and HPV test – to check the cervix for any changes and to check on the status of the HPV.
You probably didn’t just contract HPV
HPV can remain dormant in your system for many years before ever being detectable or ever causing problems. This is why it is important to note that if your test comes back positive for HPV for the first time this year and you’ve been with your partner for several years, this doesn’t mean it is coming from your current partner! You could have contracted it a long time ago – unfortunately there is no way to tell you when you contracted it.
Yes, you can still get HPV even if you got the vaccine
There are over a hundred different strains of HPV and the vaccine only protects against the most common strains. It depends which vaccine you get, but all vaccines protect against HPV types 16 and 18.
How to prevent HPV
The hard thing about preventing HPV is that it is extremely common, and currently there is no way to test for it in men. The best ways to prevent HPV are to limit the number of sexual partners, and to use condoms. Ideally your sexual partner will also have limited their sexual encounters to decrease their risk of contracting the virus and giving it to you. This is obviously much easier said than done.
What’s the difference between a Pap smear, HPV test, and STD testing?
There is some confusion when it comes to the Pap smear, HPV test and STD testing. Often all three of these tests are done at the time of your Pap appointment, but they are not all the same thing.
A Pap smear is a scraping of the cervix to look for irregular cells on the cervix. A Pap smear is NOT checking for STDs. The lab will only check for HPV along with the Pap smear if one of two situations:
One – your provider checks off for the lab to test for HPV from the Pap smear swab.
Two – the Pap smear came back showing irregular cells on the cervix, and the lab will then automatically check for HPV as the cause for this change.
STD testing is often added to your Pap smear appointment – may as well check since they are down there anyway! – but this is a different swab than the instrument used for the Pap smear and it is just a swabbing the vagina, not scrapping the cervix. It also important to note that the STDs that are checked for are chlamydia and gonorrhea – HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis are tested in the blood NOT in the vagina.
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About the author: Sarah-Kate is an Ivy League trained Board-Certified Family Nurse Practitioner with an expertise in women’s health and preventative healthcare. She considers nutrition and exercise to be the basis of well-being and is a strong advocate for daily physical activity and maintaining a healthy diet.