If you’re a sexual being in the world, you don’t need a scientist to tell you that the human papillomavirus is everywhere. According to the CDC, 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, and another 14 million become infected each year. If that number doesn’t scare you into using condoms during sex, I don’t know what will.
However, while most think HPV is mainly spread via anal or vaginal intercourse, a new study is suggesting something else — you can get HPV even if you’ve never had sex. If anyone else is freaking out right now and Googling frantically, I’m right there with you.
More: Every girl needs the HPV vaccine, so why are so many skipping it?
The study looked at data from 51 other HPV studies and found that the virus was present in 51 percent of female virgins. While some of those virgins may have contracted it from mouth-to-genital contact, others likely got it from hand-to-genital contact. That’s right, kids. Even if you’re only going to third base with someone, science says you can still easily pass and receive the virus.
But the craziness goes even further than that. The researchers think women are also contracting HPV from unclean medical examination tables and other relatively public places like the gym. Think about that the next time you sit on that common bench in the locker room in your underwear.
I’m sure this all sounds pretty shocking to the average person (me), but according to doctors and experts familiar with the virus, it’s not all that surprising. Believe it or not, there are over 100 types of HPV crawling on surfaces out there, and the fact that such a huge percentage of the world has it means it must be spreading in other ways besides sexual contact.
The important thing to remember is that only a small percentage of these HPV varieties can lead to cervical cancer. Most just lead to genital warts, which, while certainly unpleasant, aren’t nearly as bad as cancer. That said, you should do everything you can to keep HPV at bay to prevent any serious complications later in life.
For one thing, boys and girls who are 11 or 12 should get HPV vaccinations. While it doesn’t prevent all types of HPV infection, it can protect you against most of the more serious forms. Secondly, women who are over 21 should get regular cervical cancer screenings whether or not they’ve contracted the virus. Early detection of cancerous cells is the only way to prevent the cancer from fully developing.
As far as this newfound knowledge that you can get HPV just by touching surfaces that have touched infected genitals goes, just be wary of the public places where you sit with little to no genital protection. If a doctor’s table doesn’t look like fresh paper’s been pulled over it, ask a nurse, or do it yourself. If you want to use the steam room or sauna at your gym, assume it hasn’t been cleaned recently, and sit on a towel while in there.
Yes, this new information is somewhat daunting, but it just means you have to be a little more aware and keep those yearly doctor’s visits on your calendar.