I have HPV. At least, at my last pap smear 6 months ago, I did. I’ve had it for years – my first pap smear registered the STI, and since then I’ve had to return every year to ensure it doesn’t mutate into pre-cancerous cells.
My first pap smear, the HPV virus had, in fact, developed into CIN-2 – basically, it had created pre-cancerous cells which had gotten to the point where they needed to be removed from my cervix. I underwent a LLETZ procedure where they (ouch, but it’s fine bc you’re under anaesthesia) burn off the bad cells to make sure they don’t turn into actual cervical cancer.
Maybe you’ve heard of HPV, maybe you haven’t. More and more, people have been talking about the STI virus because it’s simply becoming more common.
Hannah Horvath experiences it in Girls. In Broad City, Ilana casually tells Abbi she has the virus. We’re talking about it more than ever, but there is still a lot of confusion around what it is, how you get it, and how bad it is if you do.
I asked gyanecologist Dr Philippa Costley from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to break it down for us.
1. It’s The Most Common STI
HPV – Human Papilloma Virus – is the most common STI in Australia, according to Dr Costley.
“It is extremely common. Most women or men who have been previously intimate with a partner will have been exposed to HPV.”
This is because, unlike many other STIs, HPV shows no symptoms in both men and women. So there are loads of people who don’t even know they have the virus out there.
2. Condoms Can’t Prevent Transmission
Condoms are the best form of protection from STIs besides abstinence, but as you may know, they won’t 100% protect you from STIs entirely.
“Condoms can reduce transmission, however as they do not cover all genital areas, it can still be transmitted,” explains Dr Costley.
So if you are diagnosed with HPV but you’ve only had sex using condoms, this isn’t unusual.
3. HPV Doesn’t Mean Genital Warts
It can lead to genital warts, but it’s not common.
“There are many different types of HPV. Some are more associated with genital warts, and others are higher risk for causing cancerous changes. Most people who contract HPV will experience neither.”
So don’t start panicking – but DO keep on top of your regular pap smears if you have a vagina.
4. HPV Causes Cervical Cancer, So You Need To Get Regularly Checked
Cervical cancer is a direct result of HPV affected cells turning into pre-cancerous cells, that if left unchecked can turn cancerous. This is why pap smears are SO important.
The most common example in women is changes to the cervix which is the opening of the uterus at the top of the vagina. These can usually be identified early through cervical screening tests and if required, treated with either surgical excision (LLETZ or LEEP procedure) or laser therapy.
If a pap smear spots HPV or CIN-1 cells, you’ll be asked to come back within a year to ensure things haven’t continued to develop. If there is no sign of HPV or pre-cancerous cells, you don’t have to go back for another five years! Woo!
A common misconception is that the new cervical screening program which has replaced Pap Smears is not as effective as it is only performed every 5 years instead of every 2 years and will miss cases. The new test is far more accurate in detecting HPV. As this infection occurs prior to any changes, abnormalities can be identified and treated much earlier.
5. The Vaccination From HPV, E.G. Gardasil, Doesn’t Put You In The Clear
The HPV vaccination is excellent, but it doesn’t guard you from all strains of HPV – so you still need to stay on top of pap smears.
A misconception is that people who are vaccinated against HPV (eg Gardasil) do not need to have cervical screening tests. The vaccine is highly protective against a number of types of HPV, however, there are many more types, and so it is important for women to continue to have cervical screening tests even if they have had the vaccination.
6. It’s Not The End Of The World If You Have HPV
HPV is very, very common – and it isn’t necessarily going to screw your life up. In fact, if you maintain regular pap smears and listen to your doctor, you’ll likely be fine.
“In most people, the immune system will completely clear the virus without any treatment required,” says Dr Costley.
Basically HPV, like many viruses, just needs time to clear up, and many strains won’t result in pre-cancerous cells or warts, like we explained. So if you get diagnosed with HPV, don’t stress. Just do what your GP suggests and don’t skip out on your cervical screening tests.