In the first season of HBO’s “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah, gets a startling wake-up call when she tests positive for the human papillomavirus. She gets upset and confronts her ex-boyfriend about it. Her best friend tells her “all adventurous women” have HPV, but she generally buys into the overblown idea that her life is over.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Experts say that educating yourself can help take the scariness out of an HPV diagnosis and help you manage your health.
Below is a breakdown of the facts everyone ― yes, including men! ― should know about HPV:
1. HPV is incredibly common.
Approximately 79 million Americans have HPV, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of those infected are in their 20s.
“HPV is very common, and most people will be exposed to HPV at some time in their lives,” Dr. Grace Lau, an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU Langone Health, told HuffPost.
2. HPV is considered a sexually transmitted infection.
It’s the most common one, according to the CDC. It’s typically spread through vaginal or anal sex, and it can be passed on even if your partner isn’t showing any symptoms.
“It requires intimate skin to skin contact for transmission,” Lau said. “Condom usage decreases the risk of transmission, but doesn’t completely take away that risk.”
3. Many doctors may not even test for it.
Physicians may not screen for HPV during routine Pap smears or other health testing because of how common it is, according to the American Cancer Society. They may wait until you show signs of an infection (like genital warts), or they may test for it if you’re a woman whose Pap smear comes back abnormal.
4. Men can get HPV and pass it to their partners.
If you think the virus is a women’s health issue, think again: Research published in 2014 found that 69 percent of men studied had HPV.
5. But there isn’t a real way to test men.
Currently, there’s no real recommended HPV test for men, according to the CDC. Most tests are done on women through routine screenings for cervical cancer.
“Women should have regular visits with their gynecologist and get regularly screened with pap smears,” Lau said.
6. It might increase your risk for cancer or other health issues.
HPV is most commonly associated with a risk for certain cancers, including cervical cancer or oral cancers. Some forms of the virus can also cause genital warts. However, as the CDC points out, there’s no need to panic, either:
Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets HPV. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types of HPV that can cause cancers.
Regular check-ins with your doctor can help monitor your health so you stay on top of any potential issues, Lau said.
7. HPV doesn’t necessarily stay with you forever.
“Patients commonly assume that HPV is a lifelong infection that will stay with them always,” Lau said. “But most HPV infections in most people can be cleared by the immune system within one to two years.”
That doesn’t necessarily give you a free pass to ignore it, though. Lau stresses that it’s important to monitor your heath with your physician.
“If you have been diagnosed, it’s important to follow up with your doctor to make sure it clears,” she said.
8. There are hundreds of strains of the virus.
There are high-risk strains and low-risk strains of HPV. Two high-risk types, HPV 16 and 18, are most commonly associated with precancerous or cancerous cell growth.
“HPV is not just one virus, but a group of over 200 related viruses. Each virus is labeled with a number to distinguish it from the others, and different viruses can target different areas of the body and can cause different possible diseases in humans,” Lau said. “Some cause skin problems like warts and others can lead to cancers.”
The HPV vaccine targets those high-risk strains, along with the strains that cause 90 percent of genital warts.
9. The vaccine can protect you.
Lau says everyone who plans on being sexually active should be vaccinated. Doctors typically instruct preteens get the vaccine, but if that doesn’t happen, it’s OK: Lau says the vaccine can be recommended for women up through age 26 and men up through age 21.
“The HPV vaccine is indicated for people who haven’t had sex yet, because it protects them against the viruses they haven’t been exposed to yet. However, the vaccine may still be helpful in people who have been sexually active,” she added.
10. It’s nothing to feel ashamed about.
Bottom line: There’s no reason to buy into any stigma surrounding HPV ― or any sexual health issue, for that matter. The best thing you can do is stay proactive and smart about your well-being.
“HPV is something to be aware of and to be informed about,” Lau said. That’s it.