Let's be real: sexually transmitted infections are a fact of life, and they're nothing to be ashamed of. We're all doing our best to practice safe sex while still finding ways to be fun and romantic.
Sometimes, we make mistakes and these mistakes end in a sexually transmitted infection. The question is, what will this mean for your future self?
That all depends on which sexually transmitted infection you're dealing with. When it comes to human papillomavirus (HPV), there is a possibility that it will affect fertility. It's not all doom and gloom though! There are plenty of ways you can prevent HPV and many HPV strains that are nothing to worry about.
Whether you're actively trying to conceive or just starting to think about making a family, here's everything you should know about HPV and fertility.
What is human papillomavirus infection (HPV)?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections that we know of. There are over 200 different strains of HPV, with around 40 of these known to affect the genitals .
Many types of human papillomavirus are spread through skin-to-skin contact during sex. This means, once you’re sexually active, it’s highly likely that you’ll have an HPV infection in your life . Many of the HPV strains cause no symptoms at all and they clear up on their own within 1-2 years .
Are there any risks to HPV infection?
Generally speaking, HPV infection is not something you should worry about. Not only is it common, but in a majority of cases, it disappears before you even know you’ve had it.
In some cases, you may end up with genital warts, which is considered a low-risk symptom of HPV. These warts appear as a small bump or a group of bumps in your genital area . You can seek treatment for these with your doctor.
There are a few high-risk strains of HPV, but these are quite rare. These strains are known to carry an increased risk for certain types of cancer, such as cervical cancer and mouth or throat cancer .
These cancers take decades to develop and unfortunately, we can’t predict if a person is likely to develop cancer . But, we can monitor for risk factors. Cervical screenings, AKA a pap smear, are an effective way for women over 25 to screen for cancerous or precancerous cells .
We also have an HPV vaccine which is effective at minimising your cancer risk. The vaccine covers you for up to 90% of cervical cancer and 95% of HPV-related cancers. It’s also useful for protecting against genital warts .
A lot of this information can feel scary, so we wanted to list a few key takeaways for you:
- HPV is a very common infection that most people will have in their lifetime
- Most HPV infections clear up on their own and you never experience symptoms
- Some strains can cause cancer, but this is quite rare
- For women, getting regular pap smears is an effective way to monitor for cervical cancer
- The HPV vaccine is an effective prevention method that is available in Australia — be sure to speak to your doctor if you haven't had the vaccine.
Is HPV the same as herpes?
There is one more virus, starting with H, that is super common and easily confused with HPV. The herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a sexually transmitted infection, but it’s different to HPV. There are two types of herpes to be aware of:
- HSV-1, which is mostly associated with cold sores
- HSV-2, which is mostly associated with genital herpes.
One of the reasons people confuse HPV and herpes is that they can both cause genital lesions. But, these lesions are actually quite different.
While HPV infection can lead to genital warts, herpes is more likely to cause genital blisters. These blisters are often painful and itchy. You might also feel a burning or tingling sensation before you experience a herpes breakout .
Does herpes affect fertility?
How about some good news? Herpes does not reduce fertility or prevent pregnancy .
Even though herpes doesn’t affect fertility, you may be worried about how it could affect your baby during pregnancy. Having outbreaks during pregnancy is normal and these won’t harm your baby . A herpes outbreak is pretty uncomfortable though, so you might want to start treatment ASAP.
Pilot’s herpes treatment can be used to both manage a current outbreak and suppress future outbreaks. These antiviral medications stop the virus from multiplying, which makes them successful at reducing the frequency of outbreaks and lessening the duration of symptoms when they do occur.
How is HPV linked to fertility?
Humans are a brilliant bunch. There’s so much that we already know about reproductive health, fertility and conception. But, there’s still a lot we don’t know for sure.
For example, we know that some sexually transmitted infections can cause fertility issues, such as chlamydia. But, we haven’t studied all sexually transmitted diseases in detail yet .
When it comes to HPV, there are a lot of theories about how it could affect fertility, but there's only so much we currently know.
So far, we can say some HPV infections are recognised as causing fertility issues. Researchers are still working on how and why this happens, and the more we learn, the better our resources will be to tackle the issue .
What type of HPV causes infertility?
When all you want in the world is to start a family, the idea of infertility can be scary. We wanted to share some information that may help keep you calm.
First, infertility is a clinical diagnosis and it’s not the same as being infertile. Infertility is described as the inability for a couple to conceive after 12 months of trying . That doesn’t mean you’ll be unable to conceive, it just means you’re having trouble right now.
Second, it’s something many couples struggle with. It’s estimated that 8-12% of couples around the world are dealing with infertility . There are many reasons for both female and male infertility; from hormonal disorders to lifestyle factors, environmental hazards and even mental health .
Now, turning to HPV — is there a certain type of HPV that cause infertility? With over 200 strains, it’s really hard to say. Researchers haven’t studied them all enough to tell you for sure which ones do or don’t cause fertility issues. Then there’s the fact that many HPV infections go undiagnosed as they often have no symptoms and clear up on their own.
We wanted to share this message because even though contracting HPV may be linked to infertility, it’s not the end of the road for you. There are lots of options for infertility and it all starts with investigating what may be causing your fertility problems.
We don’t want you worried about something so far outside your control. Instead, it’s better to focus on things you can do about your fertility — like Kin’s Fertility Hormone Test.
Helping you be proactive about your fertility, this simple blood test can tell you a lot about where your fertility sits right now. And, an online GP consult with a Kin doctor will help you understand the results of your fertility test and kickstart fertility planning, if you wish.
How does HPV affect male fertility?
There are a few studies that have looked into the effects of HPV on male infertility. Most of them found that some strains of HPV are linked to poor sperm quality.
Usually, it’s an issue with sperm motility — those swimmers are sluggish . There was also one study that found that men attending a fertility clinic were more likely to have an HPV semen infection .
In good news, in vitro fertilization (IVF) is considered a great option for couples who are struggling with sperm issues that are tied to HPV infection .
What are the effects of HPV on female fertility?
If we have only a few studies on men's fertility, we have even fewer that tell us about HPV and fertility for women.
One of the issues has been that HPV infections often co-exist with other conditions, like PCOS or endometriosis, that are known to impact female fertility . But, we’ll try to tell you as much as we know.
The most common reasons for female infertility are related to the sex organs — like the ovaries, endometrium and uterus . Around 20-60% of female infertility may be linked to sexually transmitted infections.
For example, a chlamydia or gonorrhoea infection could cause damage to your cervix or fallopian tubes . A majority of HPV infections clear up by themselves over time — meaning they’re not that likely to cause long-term damage.
But, if you have multiple infections, you catch a high-risk HPV strain or you’re an older woman, it’s more difficult to clear the infection and your risk of side effects goes up .
Overall, the links between female fertility and HPV infection are still being studied. One theory is that HPV infections can disrupt the delicate balance in your immune system, which in turn puts you off optimal fertility.
In good news, clearing HPV from the cervix has been shown to improve fertility . The HPV vaccination is also expected to improve both female and male fertility as it minimises the risks of the most dangerous HPV strains.
Are there any treatments for HPV?
Just like herpes, there’s no cure for HPV. Once you’ve had the virus, it stays in your system — though it won’t always be an active infection. Some of the best treatment options are actually designed to prevent HPV.
The HPV vaccine protects against 9 strains including all the high-risk ones that are likely to cause cancer. This vaccine has been administered in Australian schools for girls since 2007 and boys since 2013. So far, we know it’s working.
High-risk cervical abnormalities are down 50% in women under 18, while the risk of genital warts has decreased by 90% in young people under 21. Protection from this vaccine is expected to be lifelong.
If that advice changes, you’ll be made aware by the Australian Immunisation Register. For anyone who didn’t receive the vaccine at school, you can chat with your doctor about whether it’s appropriate for you .
Another important prevention measure is to get regular cervical screens. A pap smear is recommended every 5 years for women over 25 who have been sexually active . This will check for any abnormal cells in your cervix, including precancerous and cancerous cells.
If you get a result that picks up high-risk HPV, your doctor may talk to you about treatment options to remove any abnormal cells .
If you happen to get a strain of HPV that causes genital warts, there are also treatment options available . It’s best to check with your doctor because they can properly diagnose your genital warts, making sure it’s not actually something like herpes. They can also give you an idea of what treatment option is best.
So, while we can’t cure HPV infections, we can treat symptoms and even have methods to prevent HPV.
Will HPV treatment affect my pregnancy chances?
We don’t really have specific HPV treatments, which means no, they won’t affect your pregnancy chances. If you have any fertility concerns relating to treatment, whether for HPV symptoms or something else, your best option is to discuss them with your doctor.
There was some concern when HPV vaccines were introduced that they may affect fertility. But, the World Health Organisation has since studied all available evidence on this topic and found no connection. Its official advice is that HPV vaccines around the world are safe and effective .
Can HPV infection cause a miscarriage?
We don’t like it when we give you vague answers, but we’d hate it even more if we were to make you anxious without proper evidence. This one is still a maybe.
It’s possible that certain strains of HPV are linked to miscarriages in the early stages of pregnancy . But, once again, we need more research to be sure. There is one theory that women who miscarried with HPV had an active infection at the time .
Again, it’s just a theory right now and we don’t want you worried all the time. Getting vaccinated, keeping up with pap smears and monitoring for HPV symptoms are all ways you can be proactive about your reproductive health.
Is HPV harmful to babies?
What if you’ve already had the HPV virus before you become pregnant? Does HPV carry risks for your baby? Generally speaking, no — women who have had a human papillomavirus infection still have successful pregnancies which do not harm their babies .
As always, there are exceptions to the rule. If you’ve ever had genital warts from HPV, you need to tell your doctor. Genital warts can be quite harmful to newborns, giving them breathing difficulties and developmental issues.
This happens if the warts are transmitted during delivery. By letting your doctor know about your history with warts, they can prepare you for a safe birth. Options include cutting off warts before delivery or considering a C-section .
Women who have had lots of cervical tissue removed may also be at risk of having pre-term or low-weight births . It’s important to tell your doctor about your history with HPV so that they can help you plan for the safest, healthiest pregnancy journey and delivery.
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