HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. But what do you really know about it? There’s the more scientific stuff, including the fact that there are more than 200 types of HPV, and that 40 of those can affect your genital area. But there is also a lot of stigmatized information surrounding HPV and STIs as a whole.
While most students are at one point subject to sexual health education of some variety, it may be biased, abstinence-based or covering strictly the bare minimum. It’s likely that the sexual health education most students receive is not inclusive and lacks diversity. Odds are it is heterosexually focused and non-gender identity inclusive.
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Like I said, HPV infections are very, very common. In fact, many sexually active folks will have the HPV virus at one point or another. What you may not know is that other than those main 40 HPV types that affect your genital area, there are a bunch of other types of HPV that can affect other parts of your body: for example, common warts like hand warts or plantar warts on your feet, though these obviously aren’t sexually transmitted. Most people with HPV are likely to not have any symptoms and feel normal. In all probability, it’s possible to have HPV and not even know it.
Most genital types of HPV infections are not harmful and tend to go away on their own. However, some types can lead to genital warts or certain types of cancer. Two types of HPV (types 6 and 11) cause the majority of cases involving genital warts. While warts are extremely unpleasant, they are considered low-risk as they do not lead to cancer or other serious health problems. That being said, there are at least a dozen types of HPV that can lead to cancer, though types 16 and 18 are the most common to do so. These are considered high-risk HPV. HPV most frequently leads to cervical cancer, but it can also cause cancer in the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat.
Despite there being no cure for HPV, there is a lot you can do to mitigate the negative impact the infection can have on your health. To start, there are vaccines that can help protect you from certain types of HPV. These are commonly provided as part of school immunization programs. Genital warts can be removed by your primary care provider and high-risk HPV can usually be treated before it turns into cancer. This is why regular PAP and HPV tests are so important. Lastly, while condoms and dental dams aren’t perfect, they can reduce the chance of getting HPV.
But how is it spread? HPV is easily spread from sexual skin-to-skin contact with someone who has it. HPV can be spread even without an orgasm, and even if a penis doesn’t enter the vagina, anus or mouth.
Like I said, HPV is the most common STI, and most of the time it isn’t the end of the world. Everyone who is sexually active is likely to be infected at one point or another, and there is no reason to be ashamed or afraid. While some, or most, of us lacked an inclusive, comprehensive or diverse sexual health education, it is important now to take the initiative and put our sexual health in our own hands. Having open discussions, asking questions and practicing harm reduction techniques like condoms, dental dams, birth control, vaccines and more are a great first step.
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