You might be spreading a sexually transmitted disease (STD) you don’t even know you have. There are more than 80 types of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), 11 of which are transmitted sexually. Two of those 11 types can cause warts in the genital areas of both men and women. Another five types can cause women to get cervical dysplasia — cell changes that indicate a precancerous condition. A person can carry one or more of the 11 types of genital HPV and have no symptoms at all.
April is National Sexually Transmitted Disease Awareness Month. The goal of this year’s campaign is to raise awareness about HPV. It’s not uncommon for a man or woman infected with a genital HPV to show no symptoms, yet pass the virus on to a partner who does develop symptoms — either warts or, in women, the cervical dysplasia. Warts can occur on the vulva, in or around the vagina or anus, on the cervix, and on the penis, scrotum, groin or thigh.
Genital HPV may infect as many as 40 million people in the United States — numbers comparable to those for this country’s most prolific STD, genital herpes, according to the American Social Health Association (ASHA).
Up to 70 percent of adults (people 18 or older) in this country may carry one or more of the genital types of HPV, some medical experts estimate. “We do know that it is extremely common in the population,” says Sharon Broom, ASHA’s public-relations director. People ages 18 to 25 have the highest estimated infection rates, according to ASHA.
Although it’s impossible to determine exactly how many people carry a genital HPV — because of the lack of overt symptoms — anyone who has ever had unprotected sex could be carrying a genital HPV. “A condom helps” protect against spreading the disease, says Broom, but it’s not foolproof, because infected areas often lie outside the area a condom covers.
Also, “it is possible, but not common, for a person with genital warts to transfer them to a partner during oral sex,” she says.
To further complicate matters, you can’t rely on being able to see warts on yourself or your partner, because sometimes warts are so small they can’t be seen with the naked eye.
“It’s very scary,” says Broom, but she’s quick to add that genital warts are not a life-threatening condition. They’re highly treatable, usually are not painful, and are mostly a “cosmetic problem,” she says. A health provider can advise someone with warts on the best treatment methods. Sometimes, a person will get warts only once. Sometimes, they recur.
Cervical dysplasia can be a more serious matter. Because certain types of HPV (usually not the ones that cause warts) are linked with cervical cancer; because HPV is so common, and because there are often no noticeable symptoms, it is very important that women have yearly Pap smears, stresses Bloom. Pap smears are crucial in detecting precancerous or cancerous changes in cervical cells. The Buncombe County Health Center offers Pap smears to women as part of its free STD screening.
When cervical dysplasia is detected early enough, treatment is very effective, says Bloom. And usually, the cervical dysplasia does not recur. However, it’s important to continue with yearly Pap smears.
Many people find it difficult to talk about STDs with health-care providers. However, education depends on this communication.
During April, ASHA is offering a free pamphlet on talking with your health-care provider about HPV. “A Practical Guide for the Tongue-Tied: How to Talk with Your Health Care Provider about HPV and other STDs” is available through April 30. To get it, call (800) 667-4100.
For more information about HPV and other STDs, call the Center for Disease Control’s National STD hotline at (800) 227-8922, or the ASHA resource center at (800) 230-6039. To make an appointment for a full STD screening, call the Buncombe County Health Center at 255-5682 and ask for Special Services.
Buncombe County STD Nurse Clinician Susan Martin also provided information for this article.