I attended my first cervical screening back in 2017, a day before my 25th birthday. Yes, I’m THAT person who didn’t want to wait an extra second longer than I had to to have it done. Since then, I’ve been talking about my experience of colposcopy, HPV and cervical screenings and ‘doing my bit’ so to speak to try and encourage more women to go for their smears and also try and normalize the conversation around the HPV virus.
British YouTuber Zoe Sugg recently posted a video of her attending a LIVE smear test on her channel, along with a chat with the nurse about some common questions she gets asked surrounding cervical screenings. I thought this was a great video. With a platform as big as hers, there’s no doubt she’s opened a dialogue.
But what I wanted to focus on today, was HPV and cervical screenings. Most people know what a cervical screening is but I feel like there’s not the same conversation around the HPV virus, what it is and what it can cause.
PSA before we continue: I’m not a medical professional and all information in this post is based off of my own experience, my body and my own research. If you have any problems or worries, you should contact your GP. I have HPV and here’s what I’ve learnt about it over the years.
Firstly, what IS HPV?
HPV (Human Papillomavirus) is a group of common viruses and are spread and shared through penetrative sex, oral sex, sharing sex toys or any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area of anyone who’s got the virus. It’s the most common STD.
There are over 100 different strains of the HPV virus. Some strains cause foot warts, hand warts, genital warts and others can contribute towards different cancers, including cervical cancer. But a lot of people will have HPV and never know about it because it never causes any symptoms and leaves the body on its own.
What’s my deal with HPV and cervical screenings?
Back when I was around 16/17 and had my first “proper” boyfriend, I developed genital warts. I didn’t know they were a form of HPV at the time. All I knew is they were annoying and hurt like HELL to get removed (like, imagine sticking your fanny to the arctic circle).
Obviously I now know that genital warts were caused by a low-risk strain of HPV. Genital warts are crap. But they’re not dangerous. It was then when I got my results back from my first cervical screening that I found out I still had HPV – but the high-risk strain, which can cause cell changes in the cervix and lead to cervical cancer, if not found and treated.
How can I protect myself against HPV?
HPV is such a common STD that it’s almost impossible to protect yourself fully, unless you haven’t had any form of sex before. Practicing safe sex is always worth doing, especially with a new partner or during casual sex. It’s also worth getting the HPV vaccine if you’re able and haven’t already.
I had the vaccine when I was in school so it’s important to remember that having the vaccine doesn’t make you immune to high-risk HPV entirely – as is the case with me. But it still reduces the risk. When I was at school, it was only girls that had the vaccine but from September 2019, both boys and girls are offered it in school.
A boy can carry a high-risk strain of HPV and then pass it on to a girl. Of course a strain which can cause cervical cancer or cervical cell changes in a girl won’t have any symptoms in a boy, so he’ll never know he’s got it. But he can still pass it on to someone who could be affected. If you didn’t have the vaccine in school, you can have it done at your GP up until you’re 25.
And the main thing?
Have your cervical screening. It’s one of the most important things you can do for your health as a female. There is no other test for HPV. The only way to find out if you have it and are at higher risk of cervical changes, is by having your cervical screening.
As with me, if they find you have HPV, then you’ll be sent for a colposcopy. A test which enables them to take a closer look at the cervix and to see the extent of abnormal cells (if any), whether treatment is required and what the next steps will be.
99.7% of cervical cancers are caused by infection with a high-risk strain of HPV. So staying on top of it is so important, I really can’t stress it enough. Cervical screenings aren’t easy for everyone for a variety of reasons. If nerves and anxiety is stopping you, check out this post about tackling your smear fear.
A final word on HPV and cervical screenings
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection and STD’s and the topic around them aren’t looked at too positively. The words dirty, slag, unclean or gross might come to mind about someone who’s had or has had a STD. Because that’s just society! But HPV is SO COMMON. And it’s not talked about nearly enough.
Most people will have a strain (or more) of HPV at some point in their lives. And never know about it. But the more we do know about it and talk about it, the safer for everyone. HPV and cervical screenings come hand in hand and knowledge is power. Having HPV doesn’t make you dirty or unclean or unsafe.