Although the human papillomavirus (HPV) is quite common, there is still a lot of confusion when it comes to the facts. But in order to protect your health – and those you love – it’s important to break through the myths you may have heard about HPV. Here are five common HPV myths and the truth about them.
HPV Myth #1: Only women can get it.
Truth: HPV is a very common virus among both women and men. An estimated 80% of sexually active people will contract it at some point in their lives.
Although most HPV infections go away on their own, infections that don’t go away (persist) can cause genital warts and several types of cancer. This includes cervical cancer, penile cancer, anal cancer, and oropharyngeal (throat) cancer. It only requires skin-to-skin contact to spread the virus.
HPV Myth #2: If you have HPV you’ll get cervical cancer.
Truth: In most cases, the virus is harmless and most people have no symptoms. HPV infections typically leave the body naturally within 1 to 2 years and do not cause cancer.
Some HPV infections, however, can persist for many years. If left untreated, these infections can lead to cell changes that may progress to cancer. Since signs and symptoms of cervical cancer don’t arise until it has reached a more advanced stage, it is very important to visit your gynecologist for regular screening.
HPV Myth #3: If you test negative for HPV, you can’t spread it.
The HPV virus can lay dormant (inactive) for years after being contracted.
Truth: The HPV virus can actually lay dormant (inactive) for years after being contracted from a partner. It can then be given to someone, such as a spouse, without knowing it years later.
Because of this, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends women age 30 to 64 should be tested for HPV every five years in addition to their Pap test every three years. Even if you know your partner has only been with you during your relationship, the HPV test can identify any new occurrences of the virus, even if you and/or your partner tested negative earlier. Staying on top of whether the virus is present allows your gynecologist to be on the lookout for abnormal cells on the cervix or other conditions caused by HPV.
HPV Myth #4: You can’t get HPV after menopause.
Truth: While there tend to be more women under age 30 diagnosed with HPV infections, this doesn’t mean you’re in the clear if you’ve hit menopause. Researchers have found that women around age 50, which often is about the same time as menopause, can have a reactivation of an old HPV infection.
Whether the virus has been newly transmitted or it’s an old infection that is re-surfacing, the effects can be the same. Because of this, cervical cancer screening should be discussed with your gynecologist based on your specific situation which might include Pap and HPV testing after menopause.
HPV Myth #5: You can skip your Pap test if you got the HPV vaccine.
Truth: Absolutely not. Because there are many versions of the HPV virus, the vaccine does not protect you against all of them. Currently, the vaccines only help prevent the HPV types that cause 70% of cervical cancer. This means women age 21 to 29 should still receive Pap tests every three years.
In addition to Pap tests, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends women age 30 to 64 should be tested for HPV every five years. Women with certain risk factors or women age 65 or older should discuss their individual needs for HPV screening with their primary care physician or gynecologist.
Local county health departments and women’s clinics often offer free or low-cost Pap tests. For the uninsured, the cost of the test is usually based on income level.
Some facilities offering cervical cancer screening in the Phoenix area include:
- Arizona Department of Health Services (888) 257-8502
- Adelante Healthcare (877) 809-5092
- Maricopa Integrated Health System (602) 344-6600
- Planned Parenthood Maryvale Health Center (602) 277-7526
At Arizona Oncology, we encourage all women and men to diligently seek educational information to help protect themselves against HPV and cancer.