What to Do If Your Partner Has HPV

Ways to Reduce Risk and Prevent Infection

In This Article

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It can be scary to learn that you are dating someone with human papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV. You may worry about getting infected or have heard that people with HPV can develop cancer. More concerning yet is the knowledge that many people with HPV never have symptoms, leaving you to wonder if you may have already been infected. All of these are reasonable concerns.

With that being said, many people will overestimate the consequences of HPV infection while underestimating the risks. To set your mind at ease—and provide you the means to enjoy a healthy sex life—it is important to learn about HPV as it applies to both you and your partner.

HPV Risk

HPV is a more widespread sexually transmitted disease (STD) than one might imagine. In fact, a 2017 study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported that the rate of HPV infection in the United States was as follows:

All told, around 79 million Americans have HPV, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention, most of whom were infected in their late teens and early 20s.

Cancer Risk

What is important to note from the above-listed chart is that there are both low-risk and high-risk HPV strains. High-risk strains are those that are commonly associated with cancer (including cervical, anal, oral, penile, and vulvar cancers. The include HPV 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.

Low-risk strains are those unlikely to cause cancer or any symptoms at all. For example, HPV 6 and 11 are known to cause 90% of genital warts but are rarely associated with cancer.

According to the NHCS, little more than half of the adults with HPV will get a high-risk HPV strain. Even if they do, having a high-risk strain does not mean they will get cancer.

In fact, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Virology, the majority of high-risk HPV strains will spontaneously clear after infection. Of the cases that progress to cancer, other factors appear to contribute to there development, including genetics, smoking, older age, herpes co-infection, and infection with multiple high-risk HPV strains.

With that said, more than 80% of cervical cancer cases are associated with high-risk HPV strains. Of these, HPV 16 and 18 account for the majority of malignancies. All told, there are over 200 strains of HPV of which only 14 are considered high risk.

Value of HPV Testing

HPV testing in a tricky business. Even if tests are available to detect high-risk HPV strains, their diagnostic value is often limited. While it may seem reasonable to assume that you should get tested in your partner has HPV, getting a positive diagnosis doesn't necessarily suggest anything other than the need to monitor for cancer or precancer. Even then, the benefits apply more to women than men.

For women, an HPV genetic test can be used to detect the virus in a cervical smear. It can be performed alongside a Pap test and is recommended in women 30 and over. It is generally not used for women in their 20s because most infections in this age group will go away on their own without consequence.

Unfortunately, there are no commercial tests available to detect HPV in men. However, an anal Pap test is sometimes used in gay, bisexual, or HIV-positive men who are at an exponentially increased risk of anal cancer. Its usefulness in other men is uncertain at best. The same applies to tests used to detect oral HPV in women and men.

If you decide to get tested for HPV, you can't necessarily assume that your partner gave it to you if the test comes back positive. Given the high rate of infection, there is often little way of knowing when the exposure occurred.

Prevention Tips

While you can't completely protect yourself against HPV, there are things you can do to reduce your risk. Chief among these is vaccination. In the past, HPV vaccination was only recommended for children 11 and over or anyone 26 and under who was under-vaccinated. Those recommendations have since changed.

As of June 27, 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) endorsed HPV vaccination for women and men 27 to 45 who are not adequately vaccinated.

If entering a new relationship in which your partner has HPV, vaccination remains the primary means of protection against possible infection.

The other way to reduce your risk is to consistently practice safer sex. This includes using barrier protection for oral sex, vaginal sex, and anal sex as well as the reduction in the number of sex partners.

It is important to remember that HPV spreads through skin-to-skin contact. Even if you use condoms, it is possible to get HPV if non-covered skin comes into contact with a lesion, (including lesions you may not see).

If you are practicing oral-vaginal sex (cunnilingus) or oral-anal sex (anilingus), dental dams can provide added protection. For oral-penile sex (fellatio), a condom should be used.

If genital warts or lesions are present, it is best to avoid sex until they resolve. If you are not entirely sure if the condition has cleared, call your doctor and take extra precautions if you do have sex (including the use of gloves or finger cots for masturbation, fingering, or fisting).

A Word From Verywell

Ending a relationship with someone because they have HPV is unnecessary. With vaccination and safer sex practices, you can continue to have a healthy sex life while avoiding stress and anxiety.

With that said, most couples should work from the assumption that both they HPV, even if there's no way to find out. This doesn't mean you should avoid precautions but rather that you should avoid blaming your partner if HPV is diagnosed.

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