My Partner Has HPV... Now What?

Dating with HPV

Human papilloma virus (HPV), coloured transmission electron micrograph (TEM). Science Photo Library - PASIEKA/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

It can be very scary to learn that you are dating someone with HPV. You may hear their diagnosis and be worried that they're going to die of cancer. You may be worried that cancer is now going to affect you. However, HPV is extremely common. Most people with the virus never go on to develop cancer. In fact, many never have symptoms at all. Furthermore, when people do develop HPV-related cancers, they are usually extremely treatable.

When caught early, treatment may simply involve removal of affected tissue. There is also data that oral cancers associated with HPV infection are more susceptible to radiation than similar tumors with other causes.

Therefore, if you've just learned that you are dating someone with HPV, don't panic. It's far from the end of the world. In fact, it may not change your life much at all. 

Here are answers to some  questions people have when they learn they are dating someone with HPV.

Do I have HPV Too?

When you're a young man whose female sexual partner has just called to tell you that she's been diagnosed with HPV, it can be hard to know what to do. Unlike most other STDs, there's no convenient way to get screened for HPV. There's no commercial test used to detect the genital virus in men. Testing for oral HPV is available, but it isn't widely recommended. Just as most genital HPV infections will never cause warts or cancer, neither will most oral infections.

Therefore, many doctors see testing as unnecessary.

For women, testing is only slightly easier. There is a cervical HPV test. However, it isn't generally used for women in their 20s. It's mostly used if they've had an abnormal Pap smear. In part, that's because most HPV infections will never cause problems.

It's also because HPV is ubiquitous in young women who haven't been vaccinated. The CDC estimates that at least half of all sexually active adults will be infected at some point in their lives. Historically that estimate has been as high as 80 percent. A 2008 study found that 18 percent of girls had already been infected by the time they turned 19.

Should I Break Up With My Partner?

As I mentioned above, most sexually active people will eventually be infected with HPV. Most of them will also never know they have it. It will never cause visible symptoms, such as genital warts. It won't lead to cancer. HPV infection can be serious,but they usually aren't.

The fact that you know you are dating someone with HPV could be seen as a good thing. Many people's partners are infected, and they don't have a clue. They can't have open and honest discussions about sexual risk. They don't know that it's possible to reduce the risk of transmission during oral sex.

Learning that your partner has HPV isn't a reason to break up with them.

It may inspire you to be better about practicing safe sex, That said, I think that most people should work from the assumption that their partners have HPV. It's true a good percentage of the time, even if there's often no way to find out.

How Can I Reduce My Risk of Getting HPV?

You can't completely protect yourself against HPV infection. However, there are several ways you can reduce your risk. One of the best ways is to consider being vaccinated, if you haven't been already. Ideally, you would have been vaccinated before you started having sex. That's why children are supposed to start the vaccination series at age 11 or 12. Still, it is possible to get vaccinated through your mid-20s. That said, it may not be of much help if you're reading this because you know you are dating someone with HPV. It won't hurt. It just may not offer protection.

The other way to reduce your HPV risk is to practice safer sex That's something you should do for both oral sex and intercourse. HPV spreads through skin to skin contact, so barriers aren't 100 percent protective, but...

These cancers are not hugely common, but they are on the rise. Thus, it's worth taking reasonable steps to reduce your risk. Stopping dating someone because they have HPV is overkill. Using barriers is just a sensible plan. 

Sources:
Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet. (2012). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 7, 2012
Joseph AW, D'Souza G. (2012). Epidemiology of human papillomavirus-related head and neck cancer. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 45(4):739-64.
Previous Conferences - 2008 (Chicago, Illinois) Summaries of Highlighted Research, 11 March 2008. (2008) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 7, 2012
Rades D, Seibold ND, Gebhard MP, Noack F, Schild SE, Thorns C. (2011). Prognostic factors (including HPV status) for irradiation of locally advanced squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN). Strahlenther Onkol.187(10):626-32.

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