HPV and Relationships

The emotional toll of dealing with HPV is often as difficult as the medical aspects and can be more awkward to address. This may be the area where you feel most vulnerable, and the lack of clear counseling messages can make this even more stressful, especially where relationships are concerned.

We regularly receive questions about what to tell either a current or future sex partner about HPV, for example. The better educated you are about HPV, the easier it is to give partners the information needed to answer common questions. Use the information on this page (and elsewhere on ASHA’s website) to give yourself a good foundation of knowledge.

Talking to a Partner

Before talking with a partner, think about addressing any of your own questions or issues about HPV. This helps establish your own comfort level and is where knowledge really does equal power. One of the most important aspects of coping with HPV, and helping partners develop a good understanding of the virus, is getting factual information and avoiding myths and hype.

It may also be a good idea to have resources to which you can direct a partner, so you know they turn to trustworthy sources for information. In addition to ASHA’s web pages, see our links page for more sites with HPV information.

When talking to a partner, first remember that having HPV does not mean you have done anything wrong. Most sexually active people are likely to be exposed to HPV at some point, though most never have visible symptoms and remain unaware. Having HPV simply means you, like so many others, have been exposed to a common virus. It is not a reflection on you, your character, or your values, and conversations with partners should not be viewed as making a “confession” or offering an “apology.”

With a new relationship it may be good to date for awhile and allow aspects of the relationship besides sex to develop as you get to know one another and become closer.

Key Points to Share

HPV types: There are over 100 types of HPV, about 30 of which are primarily associated with anogenital skin and sexual transmission. Of these types, some can cause genital warts (“low-risk” HPV) while others may cause abnormal cell changes, most commonly of the cervix (“high-risk” HPV).

HPV Latency: It can take weeks, months, or even years after exposure to HPV before symptoms develop or the virus is detected. This is why it is usually impossible to determine when or from whom HPV may have been contracted.

A recent diagnosis of HPV does not necessarily mean anyone has been unfaithful, even in a long-term relationship spanning years.

Medical Impact: The medical risks of genital HPV do exist and should not to be overlooked, but a key point is that for most people, HPV is a harmless infection that does not result in visible symptoms or health complications.

Very few cases of “high-risk” HPV will lead to cancer, for example, primarily because the immune response is usually able to suppress the virus before cancer develops. In some cases, HPV may cause cell changes that persist for years, and the cells can eventually become cancerous if not detected in time. With cervical cancer, regular screening with Pap and HPV tests can almost always find abnormalities so they can be treated, if needed, before cancer occurs.

Some other cancers associated with “high-risk” HPV include those of the anus, penis, vagina, and vulva. These cancers are not common and are very rare in industrialized nations, however.

What about sexual partners?

Most sexually active couples share HPV until the immune response suppresses the infection. Partners who are sexually intimate only with each other are not likely to pass the same virus back and forth. When HPV infection goes away the immune system will remember that HPV type and keep a new infection of the same HPV type from occurring again. However, because there are many different types of HPV, becoming immune to one HPV type may not protect you from getting HPV again if exposed to another HPV type.

Can a partner test for HPV?

Current partners are likely to share HPV, but this may be difficult to prove. Testing options for HPV are limited and most cases are never diagnosed.

Pap tests, for example are not specific screening for HPV; they are designed to detect abnormal cell changes of the cervix. For women age 30 and over, an HPV test can find any of the high-risk types of HPV that are commonly found in cervical cancer.

Screening for men usually consists of a visual inspection to look for lesions (such as warts). Some healthcare providers apply an acetic wash (vinegar) as a means of highlighting lesions, but this is not a specific test for HPV and may lead to over-diagnosis.

Will I be able to pass on HPV after treatment?

Much remains unknown about HPV transmission when symptoms (lesions such as warts or cell changes) aren’t present, so experts can’t fully answer this question. However, studies show that in most cases a healthy immune system will be likely to clear HPV eventually.

Some cases may last for years, but this is not the norm. The bottom line is that most who have genital HPV eventually test negative, often within a year or two.

Many researchers and clinicians do believe “subclinical” HPV (virus in skin cells but no lesions are present) is less likely to be passed on than when warts or cell changes are detected. It is reasonable to say the chances of transmitting virus years after the last time warts were detected will become increasingly lower over time. This is not easy to prove and the lack of a solid “yes or no” answer is frustrating. Still, HPV does not seem likely to always be active.

Is it normal to feel upset about HPV?

Yes, it is normal. Some people feel very upset. They may feel ashamed, fearful, confused, less attractive or less interested in sex. They may also feel angry at their sex partner(s), even though it is usually not possible to know exactly when or from whom the virus was spread.

Some people are afraid that they will get cancer, or that they will never be able to find a sexual partner again. It is normal to have all, some or none of these feelings. It may take some time, but it is important to know that it is still possible to have a normal, healthy life, even with HPV. To help cope with HPV emotionally, talk to someone you can trust such as a friend or loved one or a supportive healthcare provider.