Discussing HPV with your partner
No two relationships are the same. What one couple discusses openly and honestly can leave another fearful of negative repercussions. We often make our closest friends our source of advice and guidance when it comes to matters of the heart. Some of us even resort to searching the internet for answers. What is certain however, is that matters of sex and in particular sexual health, are never easy conversations for anyone.
“I’ve worked in sexual and reproductive health for over 10 years and even I find myself searching for the right time to discuss certain issues with my partner,” admits Angela Pine, our Founder and HPV researcher. “It’s not like you can just drop a conversation like, ‘by the way I have HPV’ over breakfast, whilst watching Eastenders and definitely not whilst you’re in the pub on a Friday night”, she continued.
Timing is everything
This couldn’t be more true. In fact, the first piece of advice we would give anyone wanting to have a conversation about HPV, is make sure you pick the right time. Privacy is important. But you'll also want to make sure you’re both in a mood that allows open conversation without distractions.
Angela Pine says, “I really wouldn’t suggest bringing such a conversation up when your partner has just got home from a long shift at work. Timing such a chat for when you are both relaxed and in a good mood will help determine the way you both respond to each other.”
Additionally, being prepared is just as important as timing. Telling your partner you have HPV is an important conversation. They are likely to have questions and you’ll want to be prepared enough to answer them. Having to press the pause button on such a conversation to grab your phone and Google isn’t going to make the conversation go easier.
This may already sound like an incredibly daunting task that just keeps getting worse. However, we are here to make sure daunting doesn’t mean difficult. Here’s what you need to know if you’re talking to your partner about HPV.
If you were to ask two different friends for advice on whether you should even have this conversation, you may find they both give very different opinions. Some say it’s not necessary to tell your partner at all. They may see it as unnecessary information that won’t make any difference to their life and will only bring about anxiety and potential friction in your relationship. Another may suggest that it depends on how you think your partner will respond. Who is correct? Sharing a detail such as an HPV infection with your partner can be considered a personal choice.
“Human Papillomavirus or HPV, is a very common virus. If we were to test everyone, around 2 in 5 (or 40%) of people aged 15-59 would be infected. Worse still, around 80% of us will contract HPV at some stage in our lives.” says Angela. “Recent research now tells us there are around 200 types of HPV. Around 13 of these are ‘high risk’ and may increase the risk of developing some cancers. Other types may cause warts; but for most people, [HPV] causes no problems.”
All HPV types are contracted through oral, vaginal or anal sex with someone that has the virus. It’s really important for people to understand that penetrative sex is not needed to pass HPV on. Angela points out, “HPV can also be spread through genital to genital contact and [through] sharing sex toys. You can have HPV even if you haven’t been sexually active or had a new partner [for a long time], because the virus can remain undetectable in the body for many years.”
HPV affects the skin and moist membranes of the body, such as the vagina, cervix, vulva, anus, mouth, throat and the passage in the penis. “I think despite sharing your STI status being a personal choice, knowing that an infection could be passed on to your partner and it could potentially make them sick, always sways it towards being the moral choice” Angela advises. Despite it seeming embarrassing it is important to remember that the majority of people will contract HPV at some point during their lifetime.
HPV symptoms can be non-existent. “Most people don’t even know they have HPV; and in 9 out of 10 cases, it gets better on its own,” says Angela. “However, some people may develop genital warts, then an infection is more obvious and a conversation may be more unavoidable. It’s best to avoid any skin to skin contact with the infected area until you’ve completed treatment in this case”.
For some, the virus may not be cleared by the body which can lead to problems over time. In most people, HPV will be cleared by the immune system within two years and will not cause any health problems. However, a small number of people can develop a persistent HPV infection. Then there is a higher chance of developing certain cancers; however, this is usually many years or even decades after initial exposure to the virus.
Women and people assigned female at birth (with a cervix) who have a persistent HPV infection, are more at risk of cervical cancer and vaginal cancer. In fact high-risk HPV infections cause 99.8% of all cervical cancers. “This fact alone should be enough to send all people with a cervix for their ‘smear’ tests: says Angela. “We have the ability to detect these infections early, before they ever even have the chance to start to cause the changes to our cells that can lead to cancer”.
In men and people assigned male at birth there is an increased risk of penile cancer; with high-risk HPV being responsible for 60% of all cases of penile cancer diagnosed.
It doesn’t stop there. HPV is also associated with anal cancer and mouth and throat cancer in all genders. Causing 91% of anal cancers. “It’s a real problem” says Angela, “but one we can eliminate because we have the tools now”. You can read more on that in our upcoming blog ‘Can we really eliminate a cancer for the first time?’.
This all sounds very scary, we know. Angela reassures us, “Really, it’s about making sure we are informed and that we understand what it means to be infected with HPV. It is so common and if detected early it really doesn’t have to cost people their lives anymore.” She goes on to say, “The fact that people are still dying from cervical cancer caused by HPV is so sad given we have the tools to make sure that never happens.”
If you identify as female and are in a relationship with someone who identifies as male, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are currently no recommended tests to check for genital HPV in men. Something we at 10zyme want to change.
An important part of deciding to talk to your partner about an HPV diagnosis is knowing how to manage any concerns or fears your partner might have. “It’s normal for a woman to feel apprehensive about telling her partner of an HPV diagnosis,” says Angela. “She may worry that he will jump to the conclusion that she has been unfaithful and fear the implications of the diagnosis.”
It might help to write down what you want to say or even write out some of the facts first. This can help if emotions start to run high during a conversation. You can make sure you stay on track and have the information you need to answer any questions.
80% of people will be infected in their lives
Explain that [HPV] is a virus that around 80% of people will be infected with at some stage in their lives is really important. Say that very occasionally you will need further checks for pre-cancerous changes.
“I can’t stress enough that there is no need for a partner to jump to conclusions regarding infidelity. You can have HPV for many years without knowing it, and finding out you have HPV doesn’t mean you or your partner have been unfaithful. It’s very difficult to know who you got HPV from, both because the virus is so common and because it can remain undetectable for years” Angela explains.
Knowing where to start such a conversation can be tricky. You could ask your partner whether they’ve heard of HPV, and explain a bit about it and how it’s diagnosed before then you can go on to explain what’s happened in your situation. Having some information you can give them, such as our HPV factsheet, can also be useful.
Be careful to avoid assigning blame to anyone for the diagnosis. Remember it is always better to be informed rather than remain in the dark. If you can remain positive, pragmatic and give facts rather than speculation you will be able to reassure your partner. Remember that despite the statistics sounding scary, HPV causing cancer is a rare occurrence and usually your immune system will get rid of the infection.
Awareness will bring us a long way towards prevention and eventually eliminating cervical cancer caused by HPV. Angela goes on to say “Increasing HPV awareness will help people ensure they have their cervical screening tests [smear] regularly and promote HPV vaccination: which will help to reduce HPV and cancer rates,”
In all honesty, having HPV is so common that it should be thought of as an almost unavoidable part of being sexually active. We have to normalise HPV, it’s the only way to make people feel less shame and anxiety about having the virus. Having HPV doesn’t make you different from anyone else. It doesn’t mean you’re ‘dirty’, or promiscuous and we need everyone to understand this as fact.