What better time to talk about Human Papillomavirus (or HPV) than International HPV awareness day?
HPV is a really common virus. In fact, it is so common that 80% of people will get some type of HPV in their lifetime1. It can infect the skin as well as moist mucous membranes (also called mucosa) around the body. This can include the cervix, the vagina, vulva and anus as well as the lining of the mouth and the throat.
This may sound worrying but for many, HPV can usually go away without causing any problems. However, in some cases, it can cause genital warts and even some types of cancer including cervical cancer.
Fortunately, we now have access to screening programmes around the world that can help detect HPV early and a vaccine that protects against some of the most high-risk types of HPV. However, in order for these to be effective, we need people to understand HPV and why these steps are so important.
If you are feeling a bit in the dark about HPV and why it matters, read on as Dr. Kimya Tarr separates HPV fact from HPV fiction.
Myth 1. You’ll know if you have it
FACT: HPV is usually symptomless. This means people can carry and spread HPV without even realizing they have it.
In fact, you generally only find out you have HPV if:
- It’s picked up on cervical screening
- You develop one of the conditions related to HPV
This is why routine cervical screening is so important. A pap smear tests for high-risk HPV and picks up any changes in the cells caused by it2.
Myth 2. HPV = cancer
FACT: It’s important to remember that simply having HPV doesn’t necessarily put you at risk of developing cancer. Did you know that there are more than 100 different types of HPV and our immune system will usually clear the virus without any problem?3
However, some types of HPV can cause genital warts which can affect both men and women. These are low-risk types and rarely lead to cancer.
You can also get high-risk types of HPV. These are the types that are linked to cancer but having a high-risk type of HPV does not mean you will definitely get cancer. As with other types of HPV, in many people, the body gets rid of it without treatment. However, sometimes the virus can persist and cause abnormal changes in cells that can turn into cancer.
Cancers linked to high-risk types include cancer of the cervix, vagina, and vulva in women, cancers of the anus and back of the throat in both women and men, and penile cancer in men.
Myth 3. You can only get HPV through sex
FACT: HPV most commonly spreads during sex, but it can also be spread by any skin-to-skin contact as it's usually found on the fingers, hands, mouth, and genitals.
This means the virus can spread during any kind of sexual activity with another person who already has it, including intimate touching, vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or sharing sex toys.4
Myth 4. You can only get HPV if you have had sex with multiple partners
FACT: This one is simply not true. HPV is so common (remember that 80% figure from earlier?) that you don’t need to have had sex with lots of different people to come into contact with it. In fact, you can even get HPV the first time you have sex.
You can also have HPV for many years without it causing a problem and you can have it even if you have not been sexually active or had a new partner for many years. This is because HPV can be inactive (dormant) in the body for years, even decades, so if you have a long-term partner and find out you have HPV, it does not mean they have been unfaithful.4
Myth 5. Condoms protect against HPV
FACT: Condoms are a key part of safe sex and can lower your chances of getting HPV and STIs. However, a condom does not cover all the skin around the genital area. This means that as HPV can also be spread by skin to skin contact, they cannot fully protect against you catching HPV.4
Myth 6. HPV doesn’t affect LGBTQ+ people
FACT: Regardless of your gender identity or sexual orientation, if you’ve ever had sexual contact of any kind you’ve potentially been exposed to HPV.
For people with a cervix, attending routine smear tests coupled with HPV vaccinations for those most at risk can reduce HPV and HPV-related cancer in LGBTQ+ communities. Depending on where you live, HPV vaccination is available to men at risk of HPV.5
Speak to your doctor for more information about if you are eligible for the HPV vaccine.
Myth 7. The HPV vaccine means you won’t get HPV
FACT: The HPV vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV, and it cannot rid the body of the infection if it has already been caught before being vaccinated, so it’s important that all people with a cervix who receive the HPV vaccine also have regular cervical screening when eligible.
However, recent research on the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine has been very promising and has shown that the HPV vaccine is cutting cases of cervical cancer in women by nearly 90% and therefore saving lives.6
It’s important to remember that HPV doesn’t only affect women, and more than 4 out of every 10 cases of cancer caused by HPV occur in men, therefore the HPV vaccine can help prevent some cancers in men7. The HPV vaccine works best if boys and girls get it before they come into contact with HPV (in other words before they become sexually active.)
Speak to your doctor or your child's doctor for more information about the HPV vaccine or if you have any questions or concerns.
Babylon can help you with all your HPV queries. Speak to a clinician about any questions or symptoms you are worried about. If there is anything you need to talk about, your next appointment is just a few clicks away.
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1. About HPV, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, Updated May 2021, https://www.jostrust.org.uk/information/hpv/what-is-hpv
2. What should I know about screening? CDC, Reviewed December 2021 https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/basic_info/screening.htm
3. HPV Vaccine Overview, NHS, Reviewed May 2019, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/hpv-human-papillomavirus-vaccine/
4. Human Papillomavirus (HPV), NHS, Reviewed March 2019, ]https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/human-papilloma-virus-hpv/
5. HPV and Cancer, National LGBT Cancer Network, Accessed February 2022, https://cancer-network.org/cancer-information/hpv-and-cancer/
6. The effects of the national HPV vaccination programme in England, UK, on cervical cancer and grade 3 cervical intraepithelial neoplasia incidence: a register-based observational study, The Lancet, December 2021, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)02178-4/fulltext
7. Cancers caused by HPV, CDC, Reviewed July 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/parents/cancer.html