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What is HPV?

Q: What is HPV? A girl I’ve been sleeping with told me she has it – should I be worried? How do you get checked for it?

-Matt, Brooklyn, NY

A: HPV stands for human papillomavirus, and it is possibly the most common STD in the United States. HPV is known for causing genital warts, as well as warts elsewhere on the body. There are over one hundred different strands of HPV, and generally each strand is responsible for warts in different parts of the body. For example, the strand that causes warts on people’s hands is different than the strand that causes warts in the genitals.

Out of those 100+ strands, over forty of them can be responsible for genital warts – which is what most people are more concerned with. The difficult thing with HPV is that because there are so many different strands, it is impossible to test for it with a blood specimen as you can for something like genital herpes. Simply put, you must have symptoms in order to be diagnosed. Symptoms of genital warts are extremely similar to any other warts someone might have. They tend to be flesh-like in color and are harder in texture than the surrounding skin. Sometimes the symptom is a single wart by itself, and other times it may be a cluster of warts that can develop a cauliflower-like look. They tend to not be painful unless picked, scratched, or otherwise irritated – but some individuals with HPV report a slight itching sensation.

As with almost every STD, it is possible to contract HPV and then not show any symptoms for an extended period of time – in fact many women do not know they have it until their annual Pap smear shows evidence of infection. It can be frustrating for many people, especially if they’ve been in a relationship with someone who suddenly comes back with it. If symptoms are present, a culture test can be performed to identify what exactly is causing them.

It’s probably nothing to be extremely concerned about in your case, Matt, but it would be in your best interest to speak with your partner and her doctor about what precautions you can take to avoid transmission. There are a variety of medications available that can help, and of course be on the look out for anything that could be considered a symptom. If you think you have spotted something make an appointment to have it looked at as soon as possible.

Hope this helps!