Q&A: I Might Have HPV, But Can’t Get Tested

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QUESTION: I recently found out that my ex-girlfriend was diagnosed with HPV. She said she was aware of the symptoms while we were still together, but didn't know it was HPV until after our relationship ended. Neither of us have ever been with another person sexually except though oral sex, so we are perplexed as to how she contracted the virus. I have no visible signs or symptoms of HPV, but I am aware that I can be a carrier and pass on the virus without knowing. How should I approach sexual activity with future partners when there is a risk of me giving them HPV, and is there any way of knowing for sure if I have the virus?

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pap smear of normal and HPV-infected cell

Photo: euthman

The HPV vaccine is now available to men in many places; you may want to ask your healthcare provider about it. Just because your girlfriend had at least one of the strains doesn't mean she had all four strains of HPV that Gardasil protects against.

As more magazines and newspapers talk about HPV, which stands for the human papillomavirus, and the HPV vaccines, we get more and more questions about this very common sexually transmissible infection, or STI.

Most People Will Get It

First, please know that HPV is extremely common. Most sexually active people get at least one of the 100+ strains at some point in their lives.

Also, the HPV vaccine is now available to men in many places; you may want to ask your healthcare provider about it. Just because your girlfriend had at least one of the strains doesn’t mean she had all four strains of HPV that Gardasil protects against.

It’s also the case that HPV is sexually transmitted and can be transmitted during oral sex, vaginal sex or anal sex. As you both had had oral sex with other people before getting together, it’s possible that one or both of you got it that way.

Men Can’t Be Tested

Further, men can’t routinely be tested for HPV, so you may have gotten it from a past partner and given it to your ex-girlfriend. Or she may have gotten HPV from her earlier partner and then given it to you. There is no way of knowing.

Women, who are regularly tested for HPV these days, are more likely to get the diagnosis just because they’re the ones being tested. We don’t have good testing available for men so again: you may have been the one to originally have it and neither of you will likely ever know.

 It Might Not Cause Any Problems

The good news is that most people’s bodies don’t experience noticeable problems from HPV. You may never have problems with it and it may clear from your body without ever transmitting it to anyone else.

Unless you’re linked up with a very rare, progressive, perhaps research-based clinic, there’s likely no HPV testing available for you as a man (but you can ask your healthcare provider).

I typically tell people that HPV is one of those infections that most sexually active adults will come into contact with. It doesn’t make you strange, unusual or “diseased” in any way.

It’s par for the course in some ways, especially among young sexually active adults. Of course, it’s still a good idea to talk with future partners, learn about HPV, educate them about HPV, and know that condoms greatly reduce the risk of transmission and that this is by no means an end to your sex life.

You can continue to feel confident about having great and pleasurable sex. Chances are that other people you date or have sex with may have other strains of HPV too whether or not they know it (which is another reason to talk with your provider about the HPV vaccine).

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Dr. Debby Herbenick (M.P.H., Ph.D.)

is a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, Associate Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and author of several books including Sex Made Easy and Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction.
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