Questions from Readers: HPV Transmission

Crazyconcerned asks:  
I am a mother and I am concerned about transmitting genital HPV to my children. Is there any way it could be transmitted if they use my towel, or bath in my bathtub, diaper changes, if I use the bathroom and forget to wash my hands and then have to change diapers. I am so terrified of hurting them.

No need to worry. HPV cannot be transmitted by use of a towel or in the bathwater or through diaper changes.  Enjoy your baby!  You won’t transmit HPV to the baby.

B asks:  
I’ve never had sex but had contact w someone. This was 3 years ago. I’m engaged to someone else who’s never had sex & will be married in 2 months. I’m worried about him I don’t want him to be sick. I’ve recently been diagnosed w/ HPV & don’t know what to do. Dr. didn’t tell me anything. What should we do?

Being diagnosed with HPV is not the end of the world!  Most women and men will have HPV at some time in their life and only a very small proportion will have cervical cancer or pre-cancers.  Nevertheless, it is very important to see your doctor regularly and to follow recommendations about how to deal with your HPV.  This is what will keep it from turning into a problem.  Make sure you know when your doctor wants you to return for your next check-up.  Many times the safest way to proceed is to just wait and see if the HPV clears on its own. Most do clear and when they don’t, the changes are very slow, so you have time to be cautious. You and your husband needn’t let this spoil your upcoming wedding. Best wishes to both of you.

Paige asks:  
I have HPV and had genital warts a year ago. I had them treated and haven’t had them since. If I find a new sex partner, can they get warts even though I haven’t had them for so long?

Not all who are exposed to the HPV types that cause warts will get warts. Transmission is less likely to occur when there are no active lesions.

Lucia asks: 
You’ve said that 80% of individuals may have HPV at some point in their lives. Does this mean that if you get abnormal cells following a smear test and your body’s immune system clears it up, you can get rid of it for good? Are you able to pass it onto someone if it is dormant at the time?

We are learning more about HPV all the time.  What scientists now think is that when the HPV is cleared, it lies dormant in your body.  When it is dormant stage, it does not appear that it is passed on to your partner.

Unknown asks:  
I recently had a pap come back abnormal. Does it mean that I have HPV? I have been with the same partner for almost 2 yrs. Does it mean that he was unfaithful or was a carrier or was it just dormant in my system? Also, could it have been from my partner almost 3 yrs ago? Thank you for your time.

The Pap test has worked better than any other screening test in preventing cancer. But, like most screening tests, it is not perfect. Your Pap test may show that abnormal cells are present, when there are not. That’s called a false positive test.

On the other hand, it may be that you do have HPV and that cells in your cervix are starting to change. It is impossible to tell where the infection came from. It could have been with you for a long time.

Please follow up with your doctor’s recommendations and keep the HPV in control.

Nancy asks:  
I tested positive for HPV. Been with my bf for 2½ yrs monogamously with unprotected sex. If we keep having unprotected sex, will that lessen my chances of my body clearing the infection?? Thanks.

Having sex does not affect the way your HPV infection clears.

Kat asks:  
I just found out a month ago that I have a high risk HPV. How can I protect my boyfriend from getting it?  And is there any way to get rid of it any faster?

Condoms offer some protection against transmitting the HPV virus from one partner to the other.  But they don’t cover all areas of the body where the virus can be transmitted.  But that’s your best bet. HPV is transmitted very easily so there is a good chance that your boyfriend already has the virus. Once you both have it, it is not likely that you’ll continue to re-infect each other. As to getting rid of the HPV virus…There is no faster way.  Your immune system fights off the infection and if you eat well, exercise, get enough sleep and don’t smoke, your chances of fighting it off are enhanced.

Naomi asks:  
I’ve recently been diagnosed with HPV and am worried about my 3 year old daughter and if she could have it from sharing baths, toilets or towels with me, etc. Could I have had it at her birth & just didn’t show up on the testing yet? Can a child be tested? Thanks.

You don’t need to worry about your daughter having HPV now.  She cannot get HPV from sharing a bath or a towel or sitting on the same toilet seat as you.  HPV is sexually transmitted, not in the other ways you were worrying about.  But do think about getting her vaccinated against HPV when she reaches the age of 11 or so.

Dee asks:  
I’m 20 and I just found out that I have high risk HPV. I have a boyfriend and I want to know will he have high risk HPV like me or low risk?

When you transmit an HPV virus to your partner, it is the same type of virus that you have. Even though there are over a hundred different types of HPV, they are separate viruses and don’t morph into another type. HPV is fairly easily transmitted.  So your boyfriend is likely to have the same type that you have. But it is also likely that it will clear on its own for both of you.

Phyllis asks:  
I’ve been married and monogamous for 20 years. Recently I found out that I have high risk HPV, but I have never had an abnormal pap, which I do annually. My doctor said I should just continue with annual pap. Will reactivated HPV viruses from old infections go away on its own/become dormant again?

It’s possible your high risk HPV will clear on its own. The important thing for you to do is to continue to get your regular Pap tests and to follow your doctor’s recommendations about follow up to those Paps.

Brh asks:  
I have a follow up with my doctor for abnormal results, which if it is HPV, it was from my previous boyfriend almost 2 years ago. I am recently engaged. So to hear that I have an STD is completely mortifying! I don’t know what I need to do and how to explain to him what it is and if it will go away.

You express the same worries, anxiety and frustration that so many women feel upon receiving an HPV diagnosis.  But you should know that there are 20 million people in the US right now who have the same diagnosis and that it is estimated that 80% of the population will have HPV at some point in their lives.  While it is a very common infection, it doesn’t often lead to cancer. In the vast majority of cases, it clears up on its own. These are some of the things you can share with your fiancée. Chances are that he also has been infected with HPV, if he has had previous sexual contact. The best way to start a loving and supportive marriage is to be honest with one another. Having an HPV infection need not interfere with your sex life.

Jennifer asks:  
I’m 18 and they just found out I have HPV. I have a boyfriend but I don’t know how I got it!! Will I ever be able to have kids?  How do they treat it? Please help.

First of all, don’t panic!  HPV is very common. It is sexually transmitted. So you got it through sexual contact.  It is estimated that nearly 80% of women will have an HPV infection by the time they are 50. So you have lots of company. The good news is that the vast majority of HPV infections clear up on their own and don’t cause any problems.  What you need to do is make sure that you see a doctor regularly and get screened for changes to your cervix as the doctor recommends.  Also, take good care of your health; eat well, exercise regularly and don’t smoke.  An HPV infection will not prevent you from getting pregnant.

Kelli asks:  
I just found out I have HPV. I have a boyfriend now who I’ve not had sex with. I don’t want my sex life to be non-existent. Condoms are an obvious solution, but what else can I do to help ensure that I’m keeping my HPV under control as well as keeping it from passing to him?

Good for you for thinking about prevention!  Having an HPV infection shouldn’t ruin your sex life. But there are a number of preventive measures you can take in addition to using condoms that will help contain or reduce your risk of the infection growing. HPV can clear up on its own and not show up again with the help of a healthy immune system.  It can also clear up and then return. And it can just hang around as a persistent infection.  In any of these cases, your best bet for reducing your risk of having the HPV infection grow into cancer are similar.  You can reduce your risk by practicing healthy lifestyle habits like eating well, exercising and not smoking. If you smoke, quit.  Smoking has been shown to significantly increase the likelihood of a persistent HPV infection turning into cancer. And make sure you have regular check-ups and follow your doctor’s advice.

Sarah asks:  
How long after having unprotected sex with a carrier of a high risk HPV can the virus start to affect the cervical cells in my own body? Is it possible for the infection to create abnormal cells within a few months of infection or does it take longer than that? Thanks so much for your time.

It is possible for cell changes to start occurring within months. However, the vast majority of these cell changes are not clinically relevant.  They are merely manifestations of an active HPV infection. The vast majority of these infections will clear on their own without treatment. The important thing for you to remember is to make sure that you have your regular medical check-ups and Pap tests according to the recommended schedule. That way, if the infection doesn’t clear you and your doctor can keep on top of it and act before it becomes a serious problem.

Kristen asks:  
I’ve been recently diagnosed with low grade HPV and was told that it is likely for it to clear on its own. I am in a monogamous relationship and it is very probable that my boyfriend has it too. If we continue to have unprotected sex, does that lessen my chances of clearing?

No, he is likely exposed also and clearance is not related to sex. 

Laura asks:  
Since my high risk (pre-cancerous) HPV has cleared up, can I pass it on to my new boyfriend? We have not had sex yet, I just want to know the facts before I tell him and do anything with him.

You are asking a question that is on the minds of a lot of women. I applaud you for thinking about your health and that of your partner. Talking with your partner about your HPV infection is an important step. You both need to be involved in the decision about how your relationship will proceed.  Some facts to consider when you are talking with your partner are: transmission can occur outside intercourse and condoms can help minimize transmission (but not completely), most HPV infections will clear up on their own and the experts now think that it isn’t  transmitted when the  virus is dormant, and maintain your regular check-ups with your healthcare provider so that you’ll be aware of any changes in your HPV status.

Kirstin asks:  
I dated a guy and had sex with him only once. I found out almost a year later that he had HPV. Could I have gotten it from that one time contact?

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and it is spread very easily.  So it is possible that you could have become infected after one sexual encounter.  It is also possible that you will never know whether or not you had it because it is also very likely to clear up on its own.

Linda asks:  
I am married. My husband and I both have HPV. I have the HPV CIN 2 Moderate Severe type. Is it safe for us to still have sex with a condom on? What do married couples do about sex when they have this? Can I get re-infected or will the virus just die out, being that we both are monogamous. Thanks.

Chances are that you and your husband have the same HPV types. There’s a lot we don’t know about HPV, but most experts think that the same type of HPV virus doesn’t ‘ping-pong’ back and forth between the same partners. In other words, you are not likely to re-infect each other with the same HPV type. If the HPV type that you have clears on its own and becomes dormant,  it is unlikely that you will pass on the virus while it’s dormant. Condom usage can reduce your risk of HPV transmission. Please also raise these questions with your healthcare provider. He or she is in the best position to give you personal medical advice.

Sally asks:  
I have learned I have HPV after going to the doctor due to an outbreak, which turned out to be genital warts. Do I have to treat the warts or will they go away over time? Do the warts cause my infection to spread further? Please help.

Certain HPV types can cause warts, others can cause precancerous changes elsewhere in the genital tract. The type that causes warts won’t cause cervical cancer.  Many outbreaks of genital warts are self-limiting and will go away without treatment.  When the warts persist, they often need treatment. Please talk to your healthcare provider about the best treatment for you.

Allyson asks:  
How quickly can you develop HPV if sexually active with someone who has it? If you were to go to the gynecologist and get an abnormal pap smear is it possible for it to show up in a few months? Or would it take a few years? Thanks for your time!

It can take as little as a month or two for HPV to show up after exposure. Or it can take longer. It is also possible for a newly detected infection to be a reactivation of an old HPV infection. Generally, HPV infections grow slowly. The important thing to do when you know you’ve been exposed to HPV is to keep a schedule of regular check-ups with your healthcare provider. That way you can stay on top of any infection and not let it become cancerous.

Unknown asks:  
I have just been diagnosed with HPV. I’m also a lesbian. I have been with my girlfriend for 8 months. Is it possible that she also has HPV, although her pap was normal? Should I stop having sex with her?

HPV infection can spread through a number of means other than penetrative intercourse.  Skin to skin contact can transmit HPV.  So, if you and your partner have been intimate, the likelihood is you both have been exposed to HPV.  Remember, most HPV infections clear up on their own and don’t go on to cause cancer. Your best protection is through getting annual check-ups and  regular Pap tests to make sure you do not have any cervical abnormalities. It is also important to maintain healthy habits: eat well, get exercise and don’t smoke.

Terri asks:  
My boyfriend told me he was HPV positive from a previous partner. Told me before we did anything. I did Gardasil and he got his warts removed. We want to be more intimate, but I’m still nervous about becoming infected. Are there tips for safe sex practices other than condoms people have used?

Condoms are the best way to minimize risk from HPV- however, they are not 100 percent effective.  Smoking is another risk factor. So if you or he smokes, it would be a really good idea to quit!  You are to be congratulated for taking such good care of your health.

Annie asks:  
I was diagnosed with HPV 8 yrs ago. The infection cleared up after 6 months. My paps have been normal ever since but recently I had an abnormal pap test again. Does this mean that I have been exposed to a new strain (he is my only partner)?

You ask a question that is on a lot of women’s minds. Prospective studies have shown that most HPV infections in women who have had prior HPV infections are a reactivation of prior infections. So it is likely that your abnormal Pap test is due to a recurrence of your previous HPV and not a new strain. It sounds like you have been carefully tracking your HPV status with regular visits to your provider.  That’s terrific. It’s the best way to make sure the infection doesn’t progress to a cancer. Good luck to you.

Michelle asks:  
I was recently told I had HPV. Is it safe to still have sex? I’ve been with my boyfriend for a couple of months and have not been using condoms. Should we start now? And also, should I think about getting the vaccine.

Chances are that your partner has the same HPV types that you have if you’re in a long term, monogamous relationship. There’s a lot we don’t know about HPV, but most experts think that the same type of HPV virus doesn’t ‘ping-pong’ back and forth between the same partners- it is likely present in both partners and can recur.   Condom usage can reduce your risk of HPV transmission. Please also raise these questions with your healthcare provider. He or she is in the best position to give you personal medical advice including whether or not you should get the vaccine.

Sharon asks:  
Once the HPV is dormant in the body is there a high chance of passing on the virus to others?

If HPV is clinically not detectable (dormant), it is unlikely that you will pass it on to others.

Linda asks:  
Is possible to get HPV from oral sex?

The answer to your question is currently unknown. While researchers are gathering new information about HPV every year, the question of whether or not oral sex transmits HPV is currently not very well-understood.

Brenda asks: 
If I still have sex with my boyfriend before or after I get treated for the coposcopy will I make things worse by having sex with him without condoms?? Or will it make no difference since he has my HPV anyways by now?

Chances are that your partner has the same HPV types that you have if you’re in a long term relationship and having sex only with each other. Most experts think that the HPV virus doesn’t ‘ping-pong’ back and forth between the same partners, so you shouldn’t make it worse by having sex after the colposcopy.  But please talk to your doctor about these questions and how you can reduce your risk of having the HPV infection return.  One important step you can take is to not smoke. Smoking increases the risk of a high risk HPV infection growing into cancer. So if you don’t now smoke, don’t start. And if you do smoke, quit!

Disappointed asks:  
You said HPV doesn’t ping pong or go back and forth between partners. Does it increase the virus load though? I’ve had complete Cervarix shots while I was sexually active. Can I still get vaccinated with Gardasil to be protected against other types of HPV?

The answer to your first question is that viral load is not routinely tested for in clinical settings. But in research settings, it has been shown that viral load can fluctuate.

Tina asks:  
I had the LEEP procedure in Feb ’09 & tested HPV negative in Jan ’10. In Dec ’09, my husband discovered he has genital warts. Is it possible to catch different strains of HPV from each other? Or if we have the same HPV strain, can we re-infect each other?

Chances are that your partner has the same HPV types that you have if you’re in a long term, monogamous relationship. There’s a lot we don’t know about HPV, but most experts think that the same type of HPV virus doesn’t ‘ping-pong’ back and forth between the same partners- it is likely present in both partners and can recur. Condom usage can reduce your risk of HPV transmission. Please also raise these questions with your healthcare provider. He or she is in the best position to give you personal medical advice.

Donna asks:  
I’ve been married for 16 years and recently found out that I have a high risk HPV. Can the virus lay dormant for all these years or did my husband fool around on me???

HPV can lay dormant in your body once you have it for a very long time. Researchers are looking at this question but do not yet fully understand how long it can hang around in your body.  Your high risk HPV could have been lying dormant for all the time you’ve been married. There is no way to know. So don’t go jumping to conclusions and blame your husband.  Make sure that you get regular checkups with your doctor and follow her advice.

Iris asks:  
My boyfriend has HPV. I think he exposed me to it, yet I don’t have it and have been talking about having sex again. I am just afraid of getting the actual disease this time. Even though we have decided to use condoms, is there something he can take to get rid of it, or how do I avoid not getting it

HPV is a virus that we don’t yet have a cure for. So there is no medicine to take to get rid of it once you have it.  I’m glad you’re thinking about how to protect yourself and reduce your risk of getting HPV. You can get vaccinated to protect you from getting HPV if you are a female between the ages of 9 and 26. Condoms are another good method of protection, although they do not cover every area that may potentially be exposed to this virus.  Other ways to limit your risk of getting HPV are to limit the number of sexual partners you have, eat well and exercise and don’t smoke. HPV is a virus that can cause a lot of problems. Once you have it, it can stay in your body a long time. Please do everything you can to protect yourself.

Bob asks:  
I have just learned that my teenage daughter has HPV, the high risk kind. Should I worry that my other daughter could get the virus by using the same soap or the same towel? Is it possible to be transmitted this way?

No need to worry.  HPV is transmitted by skin to skin contact. Sex is the most common skin to skin contact when this occurs. It isn’t spread through toilet seats or towels; eating out of the same bowl of cereal or kissing. So your other daughter is not in danger of contracting the HPV virus from her sister.

Doug asks:  
How long after having sex will the virus show up. If I have been having sex with someone for 6 months is it possible that I gave it to her?

The answer to your question is not known.  It is not known what the ‘transmission efficacy’ of HPV is.  That is, we do not know the rate by which people actually get an infection for each exposure to the virus.  This is in contract to other sexually transmitted microbes, where an exposure often results in infection.  There is another unknown about HPV infections to complicate matters. If an HPV shows up at a later time, it is not clear whether this HPV infection is new or a reactivation of an old HPV infection. We have a lot yet to learn about HPV. 

Sandy asks:  
I have just gotten the loop procedure done to remove precancerous cells caused by HPV. Will I ever be able to have sex with my boyfriend again or will there always be the risk of contracting HPV again from him?

Yes, you will be able to have sex again.  However, there is still a lot we do not know about HPV. Most experts think that the HPV virus doesn’t ‘ping-pong’ back and forth between the same partners. The LEEP or Cone procedures do not get rid of your HPV infection, only the abnormal cells resulting from persistent HPV infection.  Condoms do offer some protection against HPV transmission, as well as other sexually transmitted infections. But HPV can be spread through genital contact and that contact can occur outside of the area covered by a condom. So condoms don’t offer complete protection against HPV, but they might offer you some peace of mind.

It is thought, though, that after a LEEP or a Cone procedure, your body will mount an effective immune response to assist in clearing the virus. That is why these procedures are so effective, and cervical abnormalities rarely come back after such procedures in women with working immune systems. But this does not happen in all women and it is impossible, at this time, to predict who will have a persistent HPV infection which may lead to a recurrence of abnormal cells. That is why you need to talk about your concerns with your provider and continue to take good care of yourself and get regular checkups and Pap tests, especially if you have had a procedure for abnormal cervical cells.

Daniella asks:  
When I got with my partner 8 years ago he gave me HPV.  I went to the doctor and she gave me medicine to make the warts go away. It has been 8 years and I haven’t had any warts come back. So does that mean I don’t have the virus anymore?

While most HPV becomes clinically not detectable after some time, this does not necessarily mean it has gone away.  You may have cleared the virus or it may still be in your body in non-detectable levels. The good news is that the likelihood of its returning, once it is gone, is small.  Most of us have HPV but never know it.  It is very common.

Joh asks:  
I am confused about you saying that HPV is ONLY contacted through sex. I was told I had the HPV virus and changed cells etc. But at the time I had not had sex or genital contact with anyone? Can you explain?

HPV is transmitted by skin to skin contact. Sex is the most common skin to skin contact when this occurs.

Tanika asks:  
Can HPV strains that cause cancer be spread thru kissing?

You asked about kissing as a mode of transmission for HPV.  It is not believed that HPV is harbored in the mouth. Thus, the answer to your question is “probably no,” HPV cannot be spread through kissing. You may be confusing HPV with the Herpes simplex virus (HSV) that causes cold sores.

Angela asks:  
I was just diagnosed with HPV and have been in a relationship for 2 1/2 years. Can I keep having sex with my partner?  Did he give it to me?  Can I give it back to him if he gave it to me?

You ask a question that a lot of people have asked. Chances are that your partner has the same HPV types that you have since you’re in a long term relationship. There’s a lot we don’t know about HPV, but most experts think that the HPV virus doesn’t ‘ping-pong’ back and forth between the same partners. Condoms do offer some protection against HPV transmission, as well as other sexually transmitted infections. But HPV can be spread through genital contact and that contact can occur outside of the area covered by a condom. So condoms don’t offer complete protection against HPV, but they might offer you some peace of mind.

HPV is a very common infection. But because it can be undetected in your body for years, it is hard to say who may have given it to you. Most HPV will be attached by your body’s immune system and cleared up on its own, usually within a year or maybe two. But some HPV types hang around for a long time before they start causing trouble.  Thus, it is hard to know how long you’ve had the HPV and who gave it to you. Don’t jump to conclusions.

Your best bet is to talk to your health care provider and ask these same questions. The two of you and perhaps your partner can have a discussion about the best course for you to take.

Johnetta asks:  
I just found out I have HPV and it’s really hard for me to understand this. I have only had one partner and feel like maybe he has cheated on me and that is how I got it. I had a Pap a year ago and it was clean and this year it wasn’t. I have abnormal cells. So I talked to my partner who swears he didn’t cheat. But if he didn’t cheat on me, how did I get HPV if it’s sexually transmitted?

I can imagine the shock of hearing that you have HPV and I know that many women have the same questions that you do about how they got this virus. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Nearly 80% of American adults will have it sometime in their lives. It is transmitted through sexual contact. That means genital contact of a close nature, with or without sexual intercourse. HPV viruses can live for many years in your body without any signs or symptoms before starting to effect these changes in your cervix. The HPV virus can remain “latent” in your body without your knowing it. Thus, it is very hard to know where you contracted the virus.  It is important for you to continue to get your regular checkups, Pap and HPV tests and follow your doctor’s advice.

Spotlight

This special section in Self Magazine features a GYN surgeon and 34-year-old (at the time of diagnosis) patient.

Awareness

Check out CervivorTV’s new webisode: 5th National Race to End Women’s Cancer. Hosted by the fabulous cervivor herself, Tamika Felder! Click here.

Research

The Foundation’s research award winners will be notified in January. Thank you to all who sent in their applications.

Education

The Foundation for Women’s Cancer is pleased to announce its upcoming FREE Telephone Education Workshop Dec. 18 on Cervical Cancer. For more information, click here.