So you’ve had a cervical smear test and you’ve been told you have HPV. What now? There are probably all kinds of questions running through your head - can I have sex? Do I tell my partner? Do I tell future partners?

At the moment, there are no standard medical guidelines for telling people about an HPV diagnosis. So we’ve pulled together some information to help you.

There are many strains, or types, of HPV. In this post we’re talking about the type of HPV that’s found in a cervical screening test. This is not the same type of HPV that causes genital warts.

Cervical screenings, also known as smear tests, are free tests available on the NHS. In England, Scotland and Wales, when you attend your cervical screening appointment you’re checked for a virus called high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV).

If HPV is found, your cervix is then checked for abnormal cells. If nothing is found in the second test, you’ll be invited back for another test in a year. This checks that the HPV infection has cleared.

HPV is incredibly common. Most sexually active people will come across it at some point in their lives. And most of the time, it’s a harmless surface infection that your body clears easily, without you knowing you have it.

There’s no way to cure HPV, but the chances are your HPV will go away without you needing to do anything. The body will usually be able to fight off the infection and eventually clear it. More than 90% of new HPV infections will clear from a person's body within 2 years.

HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal and oral sex, skin-to-skin touching of the genital area and sharing sex toys. Condoms can help prevent transmission, but because it’s spread by contact with skin, it’s hard to protect against even with condoms.

There’s no blood test for HPV and no way to test for HPV in men and people with penises.
There is a HPV vaccine available. A lot of people get this around ages 12 and 13.

What happens to your sex life after an HPV diagnosis?

If you are diagnosed with HPV, remember it's not your fault. HPV is common and people can have the infection for many years. There is no need to feel embarrassed or ashamed. In fact, you should be proud that you’re attending your cervical screenings on time and taking care of yourself.

If you are diagnosed with HPV after your cervical screening, ask your clinician if you need to wait before having sex. If you need to have more tests, for example, you might need to avoid sex for a while.

If you’re in a monogamous relationship, your partner probably already has the same strain of HPV as you. So as long as you haven’t been told to wait for further tests or procedures, you can continue to have sex. If you’re having unprotected sex, it’s a good time to get an up-to-date test for all STIs.

If you have multiple partners, there’s not much you can do to stop passing it on. And remember, HPV is so common your partners are likely to have already had it. Condoms and dental dams can help reduce the chance of passing on HPV, but they don’t protect you 100%. Take the HPV diagnosis as a reminder of the importance of using protection and staying up-to-date with STI testing.

You might not feel sure that you want to tell partners about your diagnosis. But talking to a partner about this means they can support you. If you decide to share, it’s likely they will have some questions. Educate yourself about HPV, more you know, the more you can reassure them. You can tell them it's common, should clear from their system quickly, and shouldn’t affect their health at all.

Telling your partner about your HPV diagnosis may also encourage them to get their HPV vaccine if they haven’t already.

If your partner also has a cervix, they should stay up to date with their cervical screenings. If your partner has a penis, they should keep an eye out for any new symptoms or skin changes. If they have concerns, they can contact their GP or local sexual health clinic.

Sometimes HPV will not clear. When this happens, it can cause changes in your cells which can lead to different types of cancer. This is why it’s so important to go to your regular cervical screening appointments and to have any extra appointments you’re invited to.

Published on: 05 June 2024