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Question: I have HPV. Should I tell my boyfriend even if we always practice safe sex? I mean, if I don’t have any current warts, can I still give it to him? My doctor said I got mine from skin-to-skin contact, not from semen.
— Anonymous submission
This is a great question; in fact, HPV-related questions are probably one of the most frequent topics I see in the clinic. Finding out you have HPV or genital warts can be really scary and embarrassing. It’s important to distinguish HPV from other types of infections like HSV (herpes) and HIV. HPV stands for the human papilloma virus. HPV is a virus that lives around the genitals, including the vagina, penis, and anus. There are over 40 types of HPV. Most types of HPV don’t cause any symptoms at all so you would never know that you had it, but some types can cause genital warts, and a few types have the potential to cause changes to the cells of a woman’s cervix that could eventually lead to cervical cancer.
So, in regards to your question about revealing your HPV status to your partner: There isn’t really a 100 percent right or wrong answer in this situation. HPV is definitely contagious and it can be passed whether or not you have warts. Because it is a virus that is spread by skin-to-skin contact, not just body fluids, condoms are also not a guaranteed way to avoid infection. The only way to completely avoid ever getting or spreading the HPV infection is to avoid all sexual activity (and that means all genital contact not just intercourse). That is probably not a realistic option for most relationships, so the safest and most responsible action would be to tell your partner about your HPV diagnosis before you engage in any sexual activity.
That said, because HPV is so incredibly common (80 percent of adults have had HPV at some point), the chances are pretty high that, if your partner has already been sexually active in the past, they have already been exposed.
Also, it’s important to know that the type of HPV that causes warts is NOT the same type of HPV that causes cancer. And other than the Pap smear, which can identify a few strains of “high-risk” HPV known to be associated with cervical cancer, there are no HPV tests, so most people never know if they have it for not. (Just a quick reminder here that ALL sexually active women over age 21 should make sure they see their health care provider for regular Pap smears. The earlier you identify cervical cancer the better chance at treatment!) The good news is that in many cases, your own body will fight off the HPV infection and get rid of it within a few years of your exposure- so you probably won’t have it forever.
Because HPV is so common in sexually active teens and adults, there are some people who think it’s OK not to divulge your HPV status to every partner. Ultimately, the best thing you can do is to educate yourself about the virus and about the risks involved, and then make a decision that feels right to you.
Consider this: If the situation were reversed, and your partner was the one who was HPV-positive, would you want them to tell you? Is it a good idea to be sexually intimate with someone with whom you don’t feel comfortable talking about sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?
There are some really good online resources that can help you arm yourself with all the information you need to talk to your partner and help them understand just how common HPV is and what the risks are. Once you and your partner both have all the information, it usually feels less scary and you can make a decision as a couple. Not only will this keep you both safe and healthy, but it’s also a great way to establish trust and become stronger in your relationship. It can be a really hard and embarrassing conversation to have, but you will both be better off in the long run if you are able to talk openly and honestly. We live and work and date in a world where STIs are quite common. It can feel really awful to have to admit that you have one, but remember, by age 25, about 50 percent of people have already had to deal with an STI. You are NOT alone and chances are your partner will appreciate your honesty. If they don’t, well, it’s probably better that you didn’t waste your time on them anyway.
Corinna R. Michels earned a Masters of Science in Nursing at the University of California San Francisco. She was a Fulbright grant recipient in Colombia in 2013 and now works as a nurse practitioner in Yakima, where she lives with her family.