Caroline Smith* listened in disbelief to the nurse on the other end of the phone. Some abnormalities were found in her routine Pap smear, and additional tests that were performed with the Pap smear to determine the root of the problem revealed that Caroline tested positive for the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Caroline’s face went white, and she began to cry. Who had given her the virus? Would she have to share this information with future sexual partners? Was she going to die? Unable to shake the thought that she would live with this disease the rest of her life, her emotions spun out of control. What did it all mean?
What is HPV?
Caroline’s story is sadly not uncommon. In the past decade, HPV has gained more attention than ever from doctors and women’s foundations – and for good reason: each year, 14 percent of collegiettes are infected with the virus, which causes tissue growth and cell changes.
“HPV is the most common viral STD in our country,” says Dr. Jennifer Wider, women’s health expert and author of The Doctor’s Complete College Girls’ Health Guide. It can also be one of the most dangerous. There are more than 100 types of the HPV virus, which can infect cells in the mouth, throat or genital area. While some types cause warts, more serious strains can actually cause cancer. Long-term HPV infections are the leading cause of cervical cancer, making the virus a huge threat to females everywhere.
How is it transmitted?
HPV can be passed from person to person through various sexual activities. Vaginal and anal intercourse, oral sex and genital-to-genital contact all put you at risk of infection, or infecting others.
How do I know if I’m infected?
This is the tricky part. Many times, your body won’t give any warning that you’re carrying the virus, making it dangerously easy to pass it along without realizing it, says Wider. It’s no surprise more than half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their life.
There is, however, a potential physical symptom that may appear with the infection: warts. The warts are small white raised bumps that could form in the genital area and throat. Genital warts often go away on their own, but one common treatment is the use of topical creams applied directly to the warts and genital area. If you find warts on yourself or anyone you are sexually active with, get the situation checked out immediately at your campus health center.
Abnormal Pap smear? What’s that?
If you want to find out if you have HPV, get a Pap smear test. During this procedure, a tool is used to open the vaginal canal, and cells are then collected from the lining of the uterus. These cells are then put under a microscope. “A Pap smear helps detect pre-cancers or cell changes on the cervix caused by HPV that might eventually turn into cervical cancer,” says Wider.
Let’s break down the medical lingo. When a doctor says that the results of your Pap smear were “abnormal,” this means that during the test, some of the cells that were removed look different than they are supposed to, which could be the result of a variety of different things. An abnormal Pap smear could mean you have an infection, an STD such as HPV or Herpes, or you may be completely fine because the abnormalities could just be from recently engaging in sexual activity. You’ll need to have more tests done before knowing exactly what the problem is.
Wider says there are three follow-up tests you could have: a follow-up Pap smear that is the same as the first, an HPV test (again, cells from the cervix are removed to look for strains of the virus that could develop into cancer and determine what type of HPV is present) or a colposcopy (a closer look at the problem area with a lighted magnifying tool), which is the type of test Caroline underwent after she found out she was HPV-positive. Then, based on the results, you will know what the cause of the abnormalities is and you and your doctor can decide on the best treatment.