It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection in America. But how much do you really know about it?
Here are the most common myths – and facts – about HPV.
1. Myth: Only women get HPV.
Fact: Men get HPV, too. In fact, most sexually active men and women will have at least one HPV infection at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Any person who is sexually active can contract HPV, even if you’ve only had one sexual partner.
2. Myth: All strains of HPV cause cancer.
Fact: HPV can cause anal, cervical, penile, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. However, not all HPV strains can cause cancer.
High-risk strains of HPV – the strains that cause cancer – like types 16 and 18 can cause cervical cancer. In fact, these strains account for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. They can also cause other types of cancer. A 2006 study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that high-risk HPV infections cause about 5 percent of all cancers worldwide. However, the National Cancer Institute reports that most high-risk HPV infections go away within 1 to 2 years and do not cause cancer.
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Low-risk strains of HPV – the strains that don’t cause cancer, but cause skin lesions – can cause anal or genital warts. Still, after a person contracts HPV, it can take years to decades for cancer to develop, according to the CDC.
3. Myth: If you don’t have sex, you won’t get HPV.
Fact: HPV can be spread through skin-to-skin oral, anal, or vaginal sex. Condoms can lower your risk of contracting HPV, but you can still contract the virus through protected sex if there’s skin-to-skin contact.
4. Myth: Men can get screened for HPV.
Fact: HPV can be diagnosed in women through the use of a Pap test, also called a Pap smear. However, there are no FDA-approved tests to screen for HPV in men.
5. Myth: There are treatment options available for HPV.
Fact: Although healthcare professionals can treat precancerous lesions and genital warts that are caused by HPV infections, there’s no treatment available for the virus itself.
6. Myth: People with HPV always have symptoms.
Fact: Most people who have HPV do not develop any symptoms. Although there are many potential health problems associated with HPV like genital warts and certain types of cancer including cervical cancer, most people don’t develop health problems from an HPV infection. The CDC reports that in 90 percent of HPV cases, a person’s immune system fights off the infection within two years.
7. Myth: I got the HPV vaccine, so I don’t need to get Pap tests.
Fact: Even if you get the HPV vaccine, you still need to get regular Pap smears to screen for cervical cancer. The two HPV vaccines — Gardasil and Cervarix — protect against only two high-risk HPV strains (types 16 and 18) that cause cancer. The vaccine is a preventive measure and doesn’t help people who are already infected with the virus, which is why they’re recommended for people in their 20s or younger. While both vaccines are available for women, only Gardasil is available for men.