Before we dive into these myths about the human papillomavirus (HPV), let’s start by addressing one of the biggest ones: No one I know has HPV.
The reality is that HPV is the most common STI in America. Most likely, you know someone who has been infected. Maybe you yourself have been. But despite there being so many cases of HPV, there’s also a lot of misinformation about what it means to have it, who can have it, and what happens when you have it. Let’s break down some commonly-held myths about HPV.
Myth: Only people with vaginas get HPV.
It’s estimated that 80 percent of Americans will get HPV in their lifetime, and that includes people with penises. There’s a common misconception that because people with vaginas are tested at their routine gynecological exams during an annual Pap smear, only people with vaginas can therefore get HPV. But that’s not the case.
Anyone, regardless of their sex, can get HPV. Most often, penis-having people don’t have any symptoms when they have HPV. And the infection will typically clear on its own. So, a penis-having person may never know that they had the infection.
However, it is possible for HPV to cause genital warts or certain types of cancer. The kind of HPV that causes warts is not the same as the type that can cause cancer, however. HPV infections on their own are not cancer, but some HPV strains can result in different types of cancer. A vagina-having person may develop cervical cancer, while a penis-having person may develop penile cancer. Anyone may develop anal cancer or oropharyngeal cancer, which is cancer in the back of the throat.
But cancer from HPV is not common for penis-having people. Those with weakened immune systems are more likely to see cancer develop.
Myth: If anyone has an STI test, they were tested for HPV.
First off, it’s essential to understand that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all test for STIs. If you’re receiving an STI screening, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about which tests they’re running. Just because you were screened for STIs might not mean you were tested for HPV.
There’s currently only one way to gather the cells needed for HPV testing. A doctor or nurse will use a speculum to open your vagina. They’ll rub your cervix with a small device to gather a sample of cells. The doctor will then run a Pap test, sometimes known as a Pap smear, and an HPV test. The HPV test looks for high-risk types of HPV, the kinds that can later become cancer. The Pap test looks for abnormal cells on your cervix that can lead to cervical cancer. Essentially, a Pap test finds cell changes caused by high-risk HPV, but it doesn’t actually test for HPV itself.
This way of detecting HPV is the only current form of an HPV test. There is no equivalent for penis-having people. Become it’s challenging to get a proper cell sample from the skin of the penis, HPV test results for penis-having people are often inconsistent. If you’re frequently a recipient of anal sex, you may want to consider talking to your healthcare provider about an anal Pap test. An anal Pap test can’t detect HPV, but it can spot cell changes caused by anal cancer. According to the CDC, 91 percent of anal cancers are caused by HPV.
Myth: HPV always leads to cervical cancer.
Although there are many different strains of HPV, there are two types of strains: non-oncogenic, which can cause genital warts, and oncogenic, which can cause cancer. So, if you have genital warts from HPV, you will not also be diagnosed with cancer.
That said, even if you have oncogenic HPV, you may not develop cancer. It’s common for your immune system to clear both oncogenic and non-oncogenic HPV infections within two years.
When the body’s immune system can’t clear an oncogenic HPV infection, it can linger over time and cause normal cells to become abnormal. Those cells can then become cancerous. About 10 percent of vagina-having people with an HPV infection will develop long-lasting HPV infections that can result in cervical cancer. High-risk HPV can also infect the cells of the vulva, vagina, penis, oropharynx, or anus and cause cell changes called precancers. These precancers may turn into cancer if not found and removed. However, they are far less common than cervical cancer.
Myth: Condoms fully prevent the spread of HPV.
Part of what makes HPV so transmissible is that it’s not spread by bodily fluids. Instead, it’s spread by intimate skin-to-skin contact. Even when used correctly, condoms don’t prevent all contact.
That’s not to say you should forgo the condom altogether. Using condoms during vaginal or anal sex and dental dams during oral sex can still keep you safer than using nothing at all. But the only true way to stop HPV from spreading altogether is by abstaining from sex.
Myth: I got the HPV vaccine, so I never have to be tested for HPV.
In addition to using condoms and dental dams, the best way to keep yourself and your partners safe without abstaining altogether is by getting the HPV vaccine. You may also know it as Gardasil 9. The vaccine does not treat HPV. There is no known treatment or cure for HPV. Instead, the vaccine is a preventative measure.
This vaccine prevents against:
- Types 16 and 18, the two types that cause 80 percent of cervical cancer cases
- Types 6 and 11, the two types that cause 90 percent of all genital wart cases
- Types 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58, which can lead to cancer of the cervix, anus, vulva, vagina, penis, or throat
The vaccine is a series of shots that are recommended for anyone between the ages of 9 and 45. Ideally, you should receive the vaccine at around the age of 11 or 12 so you’re fully protected by the time you’re sexually active. Getting all the shots in the vaccine can result in you lowering your chances of getting genital warts or cancer caused by HPV by up to 99 percent.
But while the vaccine is effective, it doesn’t protect against all strains of HPV that can cause cancer. Getting an annual HPV test and Pap smear is still essential to detect any cell changes that may be related to HPV.
HPV is incredibly common, and in nine out of 10 cases, your body will take care of the infection. But it’s still important to stay up to date on your sexual health to prevent the spread and protect you from high-risk HPV strains that can result in cancer. If you have a vagina, be sure to stay up to date on your Pap smears and HPV tests. And if you don’t have a vagina, you can do your part by ensuring that you and your partner use condoms and dental dams correctly. And anyone can help protect themselves and their partners by getting the HPV vaccine.