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Stopping the Anxiety of HPV

How can women get the emotional support needed after an HPV diagnosis? I was diagnosed over a year ago and since then, I’ve developed a lot of shame and severe anxiety surrounding sex. Doctors just tell me to use condoms and get regular pap smears, which isn’t emotional or comprehensive support.

— Ginger, Penn.

[Have a question about women’s health? Ask Dr. Gunter yourself.]

Short Take

You are not alone. Many women find a diagnosis of human papillomavirus (HPV) very challenging, and doctors may not always offer the emotional support some patients need. Shame and anxiety can result from a lack of accurate information about the virus or related to the testing involved. Your doctor should be able to provide you with factual information to combat the myths that are weighing you down and do their best to reduce pain and stress associated with any procedures. If needed, they should also be able to refer you to a psychologist to help provide additional support.

Tell Me More

Human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States: 42 percent of Americans ages 18 to 59 have at least one type of genital HPV. It is slightly more prevalent in men than in women. But unfortunately it is associated with shame and anxiety for some women (as well as men). Some studies show that concerns about sexual transmission contribute significantly to these feelings, but learning how common the virus is can help.

Another source of shame and anxiety is that it is difficult to tell where an HPV infection may have come from. HPV can lie dormant in the body for years before it is seen on a screening. So, the HPV diagnosed today could have been acquired from a current sexual partner or any previous one. Adding to the confusion is that men and women under the age of 21 won’t know if they are infectious as they are not routinely screened.

Some people may worry that the HPV infection is a result of a partner’s infidelity. But since men are not screened for genital HPV, a woman has no way of knowing if her current male partner was shedding HPV that was acquired two months or two years ago.

This uncertainty over the source and the timing of the infection is admittedly frustrating, even more so for people with a history of known infidelity or sexual assault. If the “from whom” or the “when” is a sticking point for you, especially if you have dealt with previous sexual trauma, a psychologist may be able to help with support and reframing.

Testing for HPV and waiting for results as well as pain from biopsies can also contribute to your anxiety. If this is a concern, or if pelvic exams have been painful previously, ask for a plan in advance to deal with the pain. For some women this may even involve having the procedure performed under sedation.

Know this: Over time, shame and anxiety related to HPV tends to improve for many patients. Hearing about other women’s experiences may also be of value for some. There is a collection of HPV-related stories archived at the American Sexual Health Association and you can also share your story there.

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If you have not yet been vaccinated against HPV, you should consider getting the HPV vaccine. Even if you are HPV positive for one type of the virus, it is unlikely you have been exposed to all nine covered by the vaccine. Getting the vaccine may well protect you in the future from other types of genital HPV, reducing some anxiety related to sex. Condoms, as already mentioned, can also help protect against sexually transmitted HPV.

If these strategies don’t help, and you are still experiencing shame and anxiety surrounding sex or if your shame and anxiety is severe, then know that you are not alone in your struggles and ask for a referral to a psychologist who has experience in sexual health related issues.

On a Personal Note

Thank you for sharing your struggles. We don’t talk openly about HPV enough. I’ve heard similar stories from many women who are suffering just as you have described. Thank you for giving me a chance to share this information publicly. Knowing you are not alone in your struggles can sometimes be powerful medicine.

Remember, having an HPV infection does not mean you are bad or promiscuous, it just makes you human.

Dr. Jen Gunter, often called Twitter’s resident gynecologist, is teaming up with our editors to answer your questions about all things women’s health. From what’s normal for your anatomy to healthy sex and clearing up the truth behind strange wellness claims, Dr. Gunter, who also writes a column called The Cycle, promises to handle your questions with respect, forthrightness and honesty.


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