Everything You Should Know About HPV — From One of the 80% of Women Who Will Have It
Note: In October 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded the approved use of the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine is now approved for people ages 9 through 45. Learn more about HPV.
Whenever someone asks me (usually in a medical setting) if I have any sexually transmitted infections, I always almost forget that I do. But then I remember: Oh yeah, I have HPV. Because who doesn't? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 80% of women will have been infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) at least once by the time they're 50. HPV is so common that it feels like it shouldn't even count. But, it does.
People in their late teens and early 20s are the most likely group to get HPV, but 90% of people who get the virus will fight it off with just their immune system in less than two years' time. I'm part of the other 10% — a very elite club who have a persistent HPV infection, because for whatever reason, our bodies can't fight off the virus. I've had HPV for three (beautiful) years.
It's a glamorous life of pap smears, colposcopies, biopsies, cryotherapy, the legendary loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), and seeing your gynecologist so often that you have her personal cell phone number and you sometimes text each other. Also, you send her Christmas cards, and you don't even really send Christmas cards.
In the three years I've been living with HPV, I've picked up a few things. Let's start with the basics.
A-B-C H-P-V (The Basics)
Of the more than 200 strains of HPV, at least 40 can be easily passed through sexual contact. Some of these strains cause genital warts; some of them are stealthy and present no symptoms at all. It's just everyone's luck that the stealthiest strains happen to be the ones that can do the most damage.
The medical community knows that about a dozen stealthy, high-risk strains exist and that the HPV-16 and HPV-18 strains are the most dangerous. Together, those two strains contribute to the development of over 70% of HPV-related cancers.
Similarly, there are two strains of HPV that cause most cases of genital warts. In fact, the combined power of the HPV-6 and HPV-11 strains causes more than 90% of genital warts cases. Although these strains cause unbecoming things to grow on your genitalia, they are considered low-risk because they don't cause cancer.
The HPV Vaccine and Prevention
Three HPV vaccines are currently available across the United States: Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix. They all require you to get three shots over a period of six months, and they all protect against HPV-16 and HPV-18. Gardasil also protects against the HPV-6 and HPV-11 strains, and Gardasil-9 protects against even more strains of HPV. While the vaccine is recommended for girls and boys 11–12, women 26 and younger can still get the vaccine if they didn't have it when they were younger.
Getting the HPV vaccine
By the time the HPV vaccine fully hit the market and I had gotten the first shot, I was 25-going-on-26 and about to age out of both my mom's health insurance plan and the vaccine's recommended age window. Then I got my second dose late. Shortly after I got my second dose, I was diagnosed with HPV. A bummer, yes, but I still got my third shot — my doctor pointed out that the vaccine could still protect me from strains I didn't have.
For those older than 26 who haven't been vaccinated
The thinking is that by 26, you have a) already had sex and b) been exposed to one or more types of HPV that the vaccine targets. Why this matters: the vaccine can only protect you from an HPV strain if you've never had it before. It can't protect you from strains your body fought off back in the day. If you're 26 or older, it could be worth it for you to get the vaccine. You could still get some protection, so talk to your doctor to find out if it could be right for you.
When it comes to navigating HPV, keep in mind that we've only taken one step on a very long journey. Prevention is key. Whether you've got HPV or not, do all you can to protect yourself and inspire others to do the same. The more the ones you love protect themselves, the more you yourself are protected.
Chelsey Delaney is a designer, writer, and comedic womyn. She works as a UX designer, concentrating on the user experience of health care websites and applications, and contributes regularly to Bedsider.org, a website to help young adults use birth control consistently and effectively.
The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health.