Last Updated on June 4, 2020 by Shuvani Sanyal, MD
It’s STD Awareness Month – Every Month!
Well, not really, but we think it should be!
During STD Awareness Month this past April, we began doing research on all of the myths surrounding STDs. What we originally thought would last through the month has blossomed into a much larger series, because there were so many misconceptions out there, we didn’t want to exclude any of them.
As such, we’ve decided to continue our myth busting series even though it’s no longer STD Awareness Month ‘officially’. We’ve dubbed it: ‘So True, So False!’, because we think we’re as cool as E!, of course, and, because promoting awareness, education, and acceptance doesn’t always have to be super-serious.
Really, though, these myths often perpetuate big problems: they keep people from getting tested, talking to partners, practicing safer-sex, and all around being conscientious about their sexual health. So, this is kinda serious stuff too!
Today’s myth: ‘HPV is not an STD’ and why that’s so false!
HPV is Not an STD
This myth recently came up during casual conversation…
A couple of months after The STI Project’s launch, my significant other and I were sitting around a table having cocktails with friends and talking about the website when someone mentioned she’d previously undergone procedures related to HPV. Her significant other, not keen on acknowledging that his partner had been treated for an STD, was adamant that HPV is not sexually transmitted.
Types of HPV
It’s easy to understand his confusion, because there are upwards of 100 different types of HPV – from the warts people have on their fingers to the strains that cause cervical cancer.
Around 30 of those 100 different types can be and are primarily sexually transmitted, which, makes them sexually transmitted infections (STIs). When those infections are exhibiting signs or symptoms, such as genital warts or abnormalities on the cervix, they are sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Curious about the difference between STI and STD?
Those HPV infections that affect the genital areas are then separated into two different categories. Human papillomavirus, or HPV, for short, is either considered high-risk or low-risk. The low-risk strains cause genital warts (warts on other parts of the body are considered low-risk as well). The high-risk strains cause cell abnormalities, commonly on the cervix, and can lead to cervical cancer, thus, their designation as high-risk.
Despite the stigma attached to the physical symptoms of genital warts, a low-risk strain is much less adverse and is much less likely to cause long-term damage or complications beyond their unsightly nature.
Abnormal Pap Smears Are HPV
HPV is actually one of the most common STDs – so common that 80% of all women will have contracted HPV at some point in their lives by the time they reach the age of 50.
Most don’t know they have it, a lot are not told they have an STD, and many are not told that what they have is HPV.
A traditional pap smear does not test for HPV or any other STD. A traditional pap smear tests for cell changes and abnormalities on the cervix caused by HPV. If they find any of those things, they know you have an HPV infection. Only once procedures have been done to remove abnormalities do they typically test for HPV to discern if the HPV is gone and if the procedure was successful.
As was the case with me, many doctors do not tell patients they have an STD or HPV when they’ve had an abnormal pap smear, because they are concerned about an influx of questions and fear due to the stigma associated with all STDs. Therefore, many women who’ve had an abnormal pap smear are entirely unaware they’ve had an STD and HPV.
It’s no wonder people misunderstand HPV!
In short, if you’ve ever had an abnormal pap smear (HPV), or any of the low-risk strains of HPV (genital warts), you’ve had an STD.
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Have you heard this before? How did you learn about this myth and what was your opinion before reading this post? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!