10 Myths About HPV That Could Seriously Damage Your Health

Get the real facts about human papillomavirus (HPV): how HPV is spread, how to recognize the symptoms of HPV, and the benefits of the HPV vaccine.

Myth: It’s hard to be exposed to the human papillomaviruses, also known as HPV

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HPV fact: “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly everybody who has sex likely is going to be exposed to at least one and probably many different versions of the virus. Here are 5 smart things to do after getting an abnormal Pap test.

Myth: There is only one type of HPV

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HPV fact: There are several strains of HPV. “There are some types of the virus that are completely benign and others that cause things like genital warts and still others that cause cancer,” says Tim Lahey, MD, associate professor of medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. Strains 16, 18, 31, and 33 more commonly cause cancer than other strains.

Myth: Only women can get cancer from HPV

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HPV fact: Both men and women can get cancer from HPV. The type of tissue HPV likes to cause cancer in is actually found in both the cervix and the anus. Men can only get anal cancer but women can get both anal and cervical cancer from specific strains of the human papillomaviruses. Esophageal cancer can also be caused by HPV in both sexes, since the virus can be transmitted through oral sex. Here are symptoms of cancer women are likely to ignore and symptoms of cancer men are likely to ignore.

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Myth: Once you have HPV, you have it forever

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HPV fact: “Most of us are exposed to HPV infection and our immune system is able to clear it from the body,” says Dr. Lahey. However, if you have a particularly virulent kind of HPV or your immune system is weakened, you are more likely to carry the disease longer and be at a higher risk for developing cancer.

Myth: It’s not a big deal to skip the HPV vaccine

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HPV fact: Every year, 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer often caused by the HPV virus, and 4,000 women die of the disease annually. Three vaccines exist for HPV and effectively target and protect against some of the strains that cause cervical cancer. Two of the vaccines also target the strains that cause genital warts. However, the vaccines are most effective if females get them before they’re sexually active and potentially exposed to HPV. The vaccine is recommended for 11- and 12-year-old girls, and can be given as young as age 9.  Here's more of the worst health advice gynecologists have ever heard.

Myth: Only women should get vaccinated for HPV

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HPV fact: “HPV is actually an infection that afflicts both men and women and causes cancer in both men and women,” says Dr. Lahey. “We vaccinate women to protect them from cancer and we vaccinate men for two reasons: one is to protect women from cancer and the other is to protect men from cancer. If you vaccinate a man against HPV, then he is far less likely to transmit the virus to his sexual partner.”

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Myth: You should get the vaccine at any time in your life

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HPV fact: The vaccine only works to protect people from cancer if it is given before they get the infection with HPV. “If someone is already infected with the kinds of strains that lead to cancer, and then they get the vaccine, as far as we can tell there is no benefit,” says Dr. Lahey. It is important to get the vaccine before you become sexually active, which is why adolescents as young as 11 are a population targeted by doctors for the vaccine.

Myth: Doctors are still unclear about how exactly HPV is transmitted

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HPV fact: HPV is transmitted through oral sex, vaginal sex, and anal sex.

Myth: You only get HPV if you have unprotected sex with several partners

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HPV fact: Not even condoms can completely protect you from an HPV infection, according to the National Cancer Institute. “All clinicians have seen people who have very, very average, vanilla, unexceptional sex lives who have developed cervical cancer,” says Dr. Lahey. “And so this vaccine is not for someone who we predict will have an unusual life, but to try to protect those who have exactly those unremarkable sex lives.”

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Myth: This is something only adults should discuss

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HPV fact: Parents and clinicians alike are nervous to talk about sex with tweens, but it is a conversation of paramount importance. “We can be comfortable with our children at the age of 11 and leave them at risk for developing cancer, or we can feel a little bit uncomfortable and protect them from cancer,” says Lahey. ‘The stakes are so high.”

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