million STDs. Since studies from 1996-2000 estimated 15 million and 19.9 cases respectably (although different methods were used to collect data) the problem may be getting worse. Topping the list of most common ones? HPV.
This is the deal: The human papillomavirus is an infection that carries 70 different strains that can infect the mouth and/or genital area and is typically transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Dubbed the "socially acceptable STD" 80 percent of the population has carried it at some point. Most of the time the infection is harmless, symptom-free, and clears up on its own; in fact, you may only know you have it if your pap smear comes back irregular (you could still be infected if it doesn't). However, some strains are more serious because they can cause genital warts, cervical cancer, and even throat cancer if they go untreated.
So given the odds of contracting it are fairly high, the protocol on disclosing it is murky. It's one thing to deal with the news on your own but telling your partner? A whole different, awkward story. "I've had HPV on and off throughout my life and have never told my boyfriends and probably never will," says Carol, 38, Brooklyn, NY. "The stigma of having an STD is too embarrassing."
Says Jill, 33, Los Angeles, CA: "My ex boyfriend had it and never told me until after we broke up which really pissed me off. Thankfully I see my GYN once a year but I feel like he robbed me of information I deserve to know about."
According to sex therapist Ian Kerner, Ph.D., author of "He Comes Next", the choice to disclose HPV is a personal and ethical one and many professionals are divided on the issue. "One of the reasons people don't share that information is because they're fearful of their partner's reaction especially if he or she has no experience dealing with the issue."
And science substantiates that fear: An unsurprising report published in the journal "Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health" found that the shame associated with STDs is very real. So. Do you absolutely, positively have to tell your partnrr if you have HPV?
"The short answer is no," says Irwin R. Goldstein, M.D., Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University Langone's Medical Center. "HPV is really blown out of proportion and there is no need to feel embarrassed about it or in most cases, even disclose it. For one thing, there's not much you can do to prevent HPV. Wearing a condom won't really help since it's rarely transmitted through seminal fluid. And Gardasil is short-sighted because it only takes care of four of the 70 strains, some of which are very high-risk. At this point, doctors aren't even trying to prevent HPV; they're trying to prevent cervical cancer."
"The exception: If your HPV causes genital warts you should probably tell your partner," says Goldstein. "However, warts themselves are not associated with cancer, they're removable, and lots of people only have one outbreak for their entire lives."
If you do feel more comfortable telling your partner you have it, you don't have to be all, "IhaveHPVcanyoupassthepoupon?" about it. According to Beverly Hills based sex and marital therapist Bethany Marshall, Ph.D., the first step is educating yourself about the issue so you have all the information. Then, pick a time when you're both relaxed (i.e.: not in the throes of passion) and say something like, "We've been dating for a bit so we should swap health information. I got the results back from my latest pap smear and I have HPV." Then pause to let him process. "By framing the conversation as if you both have a responsibility to disclose, you normalize the issue," says Marshall. "The bright side is, you can gauge how well your partner deals with life's challenges." You can also point him to the Center for Disease Control's HPV fact sheet here.
Most importantly: Decide how you feel about your HPV before you tell your partner. If you're not cool with it, why would anyone else be?