In case you didn't know paranoia and your first pregnancy go hand in hand. You'll spend each trimester with the goal of making it to each prenatal appointment without hearing the words “abnormal test results."
My first batch of mommy guilt came when I was admitted to the hospital last summer for an asthma attack when I was five months pregnant. My GYN repeatedly reassured me that the albuterol I was inhaling wouldn't affect the baby. “If you have to choose between albuterol and not breathing, I would say not breathing is probably more harmful to the baby," she joked, but I still worried that pumping on my inhaler would result in me one day sitting in front of elementary school principal telling me my daughter needed to be tested for ADHD.
Little did I know, my asthma was the least of my problems. In addition to eventually having a scheduled c-section due to a mild case of placenta previa, during one of my first prenatal appointments my GYN entered the office and casually revealed that I had tested positive for HPV. My fiancé and I sat there exchanging confused expressions both wondering if we should be worried.
As a sex educator I've lost count of how many times I had taught my students about HPV being fairly common, but being diagnosed was something I didn't expect.
Who had I gotten it from? Was it going to affect my daughter? Was it a first-class ticket to cervical cancer? Sensing the slight trace of panic in my fiancé's furrowed eyebrow, the doctor went on to recite a rehearsed spiel about HPV being fairly common and something we would have to keep an eye on in the years to come. It was the first time she told me, “I wouldn't worry about it," as she continued to do throughout much of my pregnancy. In fact she treated the diagnosis like a case of athlete's foot, which actually turned out to be a big help in keeping me focused on the bigger task at hand. Most importantly, the baby wasn't at risk for infection.
After hearing the baby's heartbeat and learning that I had gained an impressive two pounds over the past few months, on the car ride home my fiancé blurted out, “Oh my God. What if this is my fault? What if because of me you and the baby have cervical cancer?" I can understand how people who don't spend their workdays putting condoms on bananas and getting excited over the details of super gonorrhea might panic when they hear about anything that can't be cured and starts with an “H" and ends with a “V."
But the truth is HPV is so common almost all sexually active men and woman will get it at some point in their lives and it can take years to appear.
With both us having several partners before we became exclusive, there was no way to tell who gave who what. I could have gotten it prom night or in my college dorm. If you ever had unprotected sex, there's a strong possibility that you could have HPV too. But is that really a big deal?
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Yes and no. It's almost two years later for me and as far as I know I'm free of any signs of cervical cancer. But it is important for me to get yearly pap smears so that my doctor can make sure I stay in the clear. There's also the chance that it could completely clear up on its own. According to the CDC about 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV and about 14 million people become newly infected each year. In fact as I broke the news to a friend a few weeks after my diagnosis she laughed before telling me, “Girl, I got diagnosed with that a few years ago. No biggie."
So should you just continue to get it cracking as usual since the odds are you'll be infected anyway? Just because HPV is common doesn't mean it isn't a threat or that you shouldn't protect yourself. Here are few facts to consider before your next pap smear:
Having your v-card (and a penis) has its advantages.
Here's another good reason to hold onto to your v-card a little bit longer: If you haven't had sex (that includes anal and oral too) you're probably HPV free. There is an HPV vaccine available, although doctors warn that if you have already been sexually active for some time, it may not be worth the injection since you probably have already been exposed. Doctors recommend young women and men get the vaccine at age 11 or 12 before becoming sexually active. Males can get “catch-up" vaccines through age 21 (females have until age 26) if they have never been sexually active and didn't get the vaccine when they were younger. You should also continue to use condoms to lessen the chance of catching HPV or spreading it to others.
Because there are different strains, men can carry the strain that causes HPV and pass it to their partners, but won't be at risk for cervical cancer since they "lack" the proper anatomy.
Symptoms can take time.
A positive HPV result doesn't mean you need to kick your cheating-behind partner to the curb. Nor does it mean someone must have had all kinds of wild, crazy sex with all kinds of partners. Unfortunately with STDs comes a stigma that someone must have traded in all their morality for a good time because of course responsible people don't get HPV. Like any other STD, it only takes one time and it may take years to develop symptoms after you have sex with someone who is infected, meaning you or your partner could have been infected for years without knowing.
Different strains have different symptoms.
There are HPV strains that cause genital warts, some cause cervical cancer and some completely disappear on their own. Genital warts are not the cutest most comfortable things in the world, but are treatable.
You know what is pretty sexy though? That paper gown you'll be rocking at your next annual exam. Cervical cancer can successfully be treated especially if it is detected early through regular HPV screenings, which doctors recommend for women over 30.