Love in the time of HPV

Michael Douglas has said that his throat cancer was caused by oral sex. Douglas isn’t wrong—his particular cancer was caused by a strain of the Human Papillomavirus (or HPV). HPV can affect throats, mouths and genital areas of both men and women. It is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women become infected in their lifetime, even people that only have sex with one person during their whole life. 

There have been a lot of rumors going around about HPV, such as you can contract it from hugging, it’s incurable or that it always turns into genital warts (yucky!). However, I think clarification is needed.

HPV is most commonly passed on through genital contact and oral sex or genital-to-genital contact. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t get the virus from hugging. HPV knows no sexual orientations either, so no matter what your preference is, you can still contract it. Most people don’t know they have HPV and can carry the virus for years, even without any symptoms. It’s also possible to get multiple types of HPV at once.

Over 90 percent of HPV infections go away by themselves in less than two years. However, the other 10 percent of the virus strains can linger like an awkward date that never ends.

These strains can lead to genital warts and cancers. Out of the 79 million people in the US that are infected with HPV currently, only 360,000 of those cases will turn into genital warts, and only 10,300 cases of cervical cancer will arise from the virus.

So before you run off and buy a Contagion-style HAZMAT suit, there are ways to prevent the warts and cancer. There are HPV vaccines that protect both males and females, and can be administered by the age of 26. There are also HPV tests for women that can be proctored when screening for other sexually transmitted infections.

The best way to protect yourself from HPV is to be cautious during sex and always wear protection. If you know you have the virus, communicate this to your current or potential sexual partners. They have a right to know!