QUESTION: I’ve recently been diagnosed with genital warts. Is it ethical to even consider ever having sex again? I want to have sex but knowing that I could potentially be spreading a cancer is heavy stuff.
Many men and women have questions about the human papillomavirus – also called HPV – particularly given how often HPV is in the media these days thanks to news about two vaccines, Gardisil and Cervarix, that can prevent the transmission of some strains of HPV.
The short answer to your question is that yes, it is indeed ethical – and common – to have sex after having been diagnosed with genital warts, which are caused by HPV.
Now for the longer explanation.
What to Know About HPV
HPV stands for the human papillomavirus. There are more than 100 strains of HPV and some of these strains are linked to problems with a woman’s cervix, including cervical cancer. Women and men who have certain strains of HPV may also get genital warts, which can be caused by the virus.
People get HPV from sexual contact with other people. HPV can be transmitted during oral sex, vaginal sex or anal sex. HPV can even be transmitted from “dry sex”, when people rub their genitals together but don’t actually have intercourse.
HPV is extremely common and, although most sexually active women and men have been exposed to HPV from a sexual partner, not everyone who has HPV knows that they have it.
For example, as of now we don’t have reliable HPV tests for men so most men who have HPV may not know that they have it unless they have a more obvious symptom, such as noticeable genital warts.
HPV can be passed to other people during sexual contact. Because of this risk, people who have HPV or genital warts should tell their current or potential sexual partners that they have HPV.
Although condoms cannot fully protect against HPV, since HPV is transmitted from skin contact and condoms do not cover all of a person’s genital skin, using a condom can certainly reduce the risk of transmission.
HPV is a very common sexually transmissible infection, or STI. Both men and women can get HPV and both men and women can pass it on to their sexual partners.
With time, people who have genital warts often find that they have fewer outbreaks. Also, warts typically do not cause any discomfort or pain. Some healthcare providers do not recommend treating warts as they often go away on their own. Other times, healthcare providers may recommend treatments for genital warts.
There are more than 100 strains of HPV. Somewhere around 40 of these can affect the genital skin. Only a few of these strains can cause genital warts. And only a few of these strains are linked to cancer.
However, the strains that cause genital warts do not cause cancer, so if you have been diagnosed with genital warts that does not mean that you have strains that are linked to various cancers.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t have any of the HPV strains that have been linked to cancer – in fact, you might. But you know what? Many, many people have been exposed to HPV and very few of them ever develop cancer. Just because an HPV strain has been linked to cancer does not mean that it will cause cancer.
Most people with HPV do not ever develop cancer. In fact, most people with HPV do not experience any noticeable or problematic symptoms of infection.
Living With HPV
An estimated 60-80% of sexually active women and men will be exposed to HPV over their lives. The vast majority of them continue to have sex after they have been exposed to HPV or diagnosed with genital warts. So yes, you can continue to have sex and to seek out meaningful, pleasurable relationships with others.
That said, it would be kind and responsible of you to tell past and future partners about your diagnosis of genital warts. You may or may not pass HPV on to your partners. You cannot cure yourself of the virus at the present time. Then again, they may also have strains of HPV that they will pass onto you. Many people who have HPV don’t even know it.