HPV: The (Often) Symptomless STI
HPV, the most common STI among women, is often SYMPTOMLESS.
Yep, you read that right.
Here is the good news/bad news sis: HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active women—and some who are not—get it at some point in their lives (Source). So if you have had HPV, you are far from alone. Black women are more likely to have persistent high-risk HPV infections (Source). But whether you’ve had HPV or not, knowledge is power so be sure to read till the end for some new superpowers.
HPV: What is it?
HPV, Human Papillomavirus, is a group of more than 150 related viruses. Yes, some HPV viruses can go away on their own without causing further health problems. Others, however, result in genital warts or can lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, or throat.
HPV: How do you contract it?
You don’t have to be sexually active to get HPV. HPV is not transmitted through bodily fluids, but rather through skin-to-skin contact—most commonly through sexual contact, but it also can be passed through contact by mouth, lips, anus, and parts of the genitals (Source).
The bottom line: every sexual encounter you have, even if it’s not intercourse, makes you susceptible to HPV.
HPV and Cervical Cancer
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, which is why routine Pap smears are critical to minimizing your risk for cancer (see our tips section below). Again, because HPV is often symptomless, health care professionals have the tools to find, evaluate and, if needed, remove precancerous cells before they develop into cancer. Moral of the story, vigilance is key to early detection, and early detection is crucial to cancer prevention.
HPV: Time to take action.
- Consider the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine helps protect against certain HPV types that lead to cancer and genital warts. 80% of cervical cancer cases and 90% of genital warts cases are caused by specific strains of HPV (Source). The vaccine is a series of 3 separate shots received over a span of 6 months. All people ages 9 to 45 can get the HPV vaccine. While it is recommended that you get the vaccine before becoming sexually active, anyone 45 and under should consider it. You can encourage your sexual partner to get the vaccine too!
- Get regular Pap/HPV tests. The HPV vaccines available do not protect against all cancer-causing HPV, so a vaccine does not mean you can see your doctor less. During a Pap smear, the medical provider checks for cell changes on your cervix to determine if you’re at risk for cervical cancer. Typically, if your Pap test results are abnormal, your doctor will take a biopsy of the cells to determine if immediate treatment is recommended or if you should plan for more frequent screenings until you have a normal Pap again (Source).
- Use condoms and/or dental dams. These barriers will reduce the risk of HPV transmission, but are not 100% effective. While condoms and dental dams are not as effective for preventing HPV compared to other STIs, safer sex will still lower your susceptibility to HPV.
If you’ve made it this far, you are ready for action. Being equipped with information about HPV is the first step to preventing it or catching it early. Now, help us spread the word—share this with the women you love! Together, let’s make sure our sisters are informed and able to live their healthiest, melanated lives.
Want to know more? Read below:
Black Women’s Health Imperative: I’ve Got What? The Truth About HPV Infections
Everyday Health: HPV Vaccines May Be Less Effective in African American Women