HPV: Answering your worried patients's questions

April 1, 2007

Educating concerned patients that getting HPV is less about promiscuity and more about having sex with a new male partner can soften the stigma. Here's expert advice for reassuring those who test HPV-positive that they most likely don't have cancer, their husbands aren't necessarily cheating, that it's just as easy to get rid of HPV as it it to get it--and more.

Key Points

Educating concerned patients that getting HPV is less about promiscuity and more about having sex with a new male partner can soften the stigma. Here's expert advice for reassuring those who test HPV-positive that they most likely don't have cancer, their husbands aren't necessarily cheating, that it's just as easy to get rid of HPV as to get it-and more.

"I have WHAT?!!?"

"How did I get HPV? Who gave it to me?"

"What should I tell my husband? Should we use condoms from now on?"

"Can I re-infect my partner?" 1

How prepared are you to answer emotional questions such as those above when breaking the news to your patient that she has human papillomavirus?

Anxiety, anger, or self-depreciation will often drive her reaction. Critical to your patient counseling is understanding the natural history of HPV infections-including how it's acquired and viral transmission patterns. The psychological impact on women with genital warts or an abnormal Pap test or a positive HPV DNA test result isn't always as extreme as the reactions above-though that's what you'll hear most often. It will vary, ranging from "oh, that's part of life," to surprise, to major concern about past and future sexual relationships.

To be sure, testing HPV-positive often causes adverse psychological reactions based on a patient's fears that HPV is synonymous with cervical cancer. By recommending prophylactic vaccination to patients-but only after clearly explaining the natural history of HPV infection-clinicians can help pave the way for its acceptance.2

Our goal here is to review the current knowledge and understanding of HPV infection, emphasizing transmission, acquisition, and means of protection. Armed with that information, you'll have the answers to most of your patients' questions at your fingertips.