Question: My most recent pap smear came back abnormal. I had a colposcopy and my doctor said that it looked like I had only mild cervical changes. He checked for warts but did not find any. Can I still have sex with my boyfriend (vaginal and oral)? What safer sex practices should we use, and for how long?
I am sorry to hear about your diagnosis. While difficult, it may be reassuring to know that about 60-80% of sexually active adults have had or will have the human papillomavirus (HPV). Many never know it. This is particularly true for men, since we currently have no way of testing men for HPV that is widespread in its availability.
In other words, your boyfriend may have HPV but neither of you would know it unless he had visible warts diagnosed by a healthcare provider. It is even possible that you got HPV from him, but there is no way to know.
More Than 100 Strains of HPV
There are more than 100 strains of HPV. Some are linked to genital warts; others may cause cervical changes which would show up on a Pap test. Most people’s bodies appear to “get over” their HPV infection without it ever causing symptoms like warts or cervical changes, even if the virus remains in one’s body.
Most women who have an abnormal Pap test result have a normal Pap test result again within one year. It is important, however, to follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations regarding repeat Pap testing and colposcopy testing. Good for you for doing so!
Skin-To-Skin HPV Transmission
It is a personal choice to have sex after a sexually transmissible infection diagnosis so we cannot advise you on what to do. Since you have been together for a year and have likely been sexually active together for a while, it is possible that your boyfriend already has HPV (whether you gave it to him or he gave it to you).
As HPV is transmitted skin-to-skin, condoms (which do not cover all of one’s genital skin) cannot eliminate the risk of HPV transmission although some research suggests that they may reduce the risk. HPV can be transmitted during oral sex, vaginal sex, and anal sex.
HPV and Genital Warts
An HPV diagnosis does not mean that you will get warts. You may not have a wart-related strain. Even if you do, you may never get warts or you may only get a few warts from time to time. Treatments are available for warts should you ever get them, though some healthcare providers recommend a “wait and see” approach rather than active treatment. Again, if you develop warts or have other questions about STIs, we recommend that you speak with your healthcare provider for personal information about your health.
Both you and your boyfriend can examine your genitals for changes in appearance, keeping in mind that there are many normal lumps and bumps on one’s genitals that have nothing to do with HPV or other problems. You can learn more about HPV, abnormal Paps, warts, and normal lumps and bumps in The V Book: A Doctor’s Guide to Complete Vulvovaginal Health.
HPV and Smoking
If you smoke cigarettes, quitting smoking is a major step toward improving your cervical health. A great deal of research has connected cigarette smoking with HPV-related problems including cervical changes and genital warts.
Smoking cessation classes are available through many campus health centers and community groups. In addition, anything that helps your immune system (e.g., good sleep, relaxation, healthy lifestyle) may be helpful.
You can learn more about HPV in the STI section of our web site and on the web site of the Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov). At the CDC site you can read detailed information about the HPV vaccine, which is available to many women even if they already have a diagnosis of HPV. Ask your healthcare provider for more information about this possibility. Good luck.
UPDATE: Since this was first posted in 2006, there have been newer versions of the HPV vaccine; also, the US Food and Drug Administration approved HPV vaccination for men as well. To learn more about up to date information about HPV and the HPV vaccines, visit the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website.
Reviewed and updated May 1, 2017.