Myths about HPV

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus. There are more than 100 different types of HPV, at least 40 of which are spread through sexual contact and can infect the genital area.

Like other infections, HPV may go away without any treatment or problems—but certain low-risk types (e.g. types 6 and 11) may cause warts in the genital area, and at least 15 high-risk types of HPV (e.g. types 16 and 18) may cause cancer. There is no medicine that can cure the virus.

These are facts.  Make sure you’ve set the record straight before you make your decisions.

MYTH: HPV, HIV and Herpes are the same thing

FACT: HPV, HIV and herpes are different viruses that can affect you differently. The one thing they have in common is that they are spread from person to person through sexual contact—they are all sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

MYTH: HPV only affects girls and young women

FACT: 75% of sexually active Canadians will have at least one HPV infection in their lifetime. Both men and women can be infected with HPV. Both can have genital warts, and both can develop cancer from HPV infection, although only women can develop cervical cancer.

MYTH: If I use a condom, I can’t get HPV or any other STI

FACT: Condoms can protect against most STIs including HIV/AIDS, but do not provide complete protection against HPV. The virus can spread through skin-to-skin contact with infected areas of the skin not covered by the condom (such as the scrotum, anus, or vulva).

HPV is actually very difficult to prevent unless you decide not to have sex for life, or you only have one sexual partner who has never had another partner before. Anyone who has been sexually active may have HPV. Most sexually active people will have the virus at some point in their life.

The HPV virus causes 90% of genital warts (low-risk types 6 and 11) and 70% of cervical cancers (high-risk types 16 and 18).  

If you choose to have sex, two vaccines are now available in Canada:

  • one protects against types 16 and 18
  • the other against types 6, 11, 16 and 18


MYTH: If I only touch my partner and have oral sex, I can’t get HPV

FACT: The virus spreads through skin-to-skin contact with the penis, scrotum, vagina, vulva, or anus of a person who has the HPV infection. Kissing or touching that person’s sex organs with your mouth (oral sex) can spread HPV. It is not necessary to have intercourse to get HPV.

MYTH: You can tell if your partner has HPV

FACT: You can’t physically see whether a person has an HPV infection, unless the person has genital warts. Many people with HPV don’t have any visible signs—but they can still spread the virus.

MYTH: HPV will not affect me because I have only one partner.  It only affects people who “sleep around”

FACT: Any person who has sexual contact with another person can get HPV. You may be at risk even if you have only one partner because your partner may have had other partners in the past.

You can have sex with an infected person without knowing the person has the virus. You can spread the virus without knowing you are infected because you may not have any visible symptoms. Each partner in a sexual relationship may carry the infection for many years without knowing it.

MYTH: Genital warts can turn into cancer

FACT: Genital warts are caused by low-risk types of HPV. These types of the virus do not usually cause cancer. Genital warts may be ugly and are not easy to get rid of, but they don’t usually have long-term effects on your physical health.

MYTH: If I get HPV, it means I’ll get cancer

FACT: The majority of people will get HPV at least once in their lifetime, but only a small number of infections will cause cancer.  Like other infections, HPV may go away without any treatment or problems—but certain low-risk types (e.g., types 6 and 11) may cause warts in the genital area, and at least 15 high-risk types of HPV (e.g., types 16 and 18) may cause cancer. While there are treatments for the warts and cell changes caused by the virus, there is no medicine that can cure the virus once you are infected.

MYTH: The Pap test tells you whether you have HPV or other kinds of STIs

FACT: The Pap test detects cell changes in the cervix (located at the end of the vagina). It doesn’t tell you if you have an STI, including HPV. Your health-care professional can test for sexually transmitted infections as part of a pelvic exam or separately, but you need to ask for it.

Right now, in Canada, there is an HPV test that can find high-risk types of HPV (the ones that can cause cancer). A doctor might decide you should have an HPV DNA test after a Pap test comes back showing abnormal cells. This test is not available in all parts of Canada and the cost is not usually covered by public health insurance. The HPV test is generally recommended for women over 30 whose Pap results show specific abnormalities. The test is not recommended for women under 30 because cases of HPV are likely to clear up on their own within 2 years.

MYTH: HPV vaccination can protect me from HPV and other STIs

FACT: There are more than 100 different types of HPV.  At least 40 of these types are spread through sexual contact and can infect the genital area.

Four types of HPV cause the majority of genital warts (types 6 and 11) and most cases of cervical cancer (types 16 and 18). Two vaccines are now available in Canada; one protects against types 16 and 18 and the other against all four types.

These vaccines do not protect against any other types of HPV or any other STI.

MYTH: I don’t need the HPV vaccine because I am not having sex

FACT: If you get the vaccine now, it can help protect you in the future. In fact, the vaccine works best if you get it before you’re exposed to HPV—before you become sexually active. When you do become sexually active, you will already be protected from the types of HPV covered by the vaccine. Studies have shown that, for girls, vaccination is most effective when given between the ages of 9 and 13. 

MYTH: HPV vaccination can stop me from getting pregnant

FACT: HPV vaccination is not a contraceptive.  You still need to protect yourself from unplanned pregnancy by using some form of birth control.

MYTH: HPV vaccination infects you with the virus, so you can become immune to it

FACT: The vaccines do not contain any live or dead virus and cannot infect you with HPV.

MYTH: After being vaccinated, you no longer need Pap tests

FACT: HPV vaccination does not replace the need for regular Pap tests. The Pap test does not diagnose an HPV infection. It is used to detect cell changes in a woman’s cervix before they develop into cancer. Regular Pap tests are a key part of a healthy woman’s life, whether or not she has had the HPV vaccination. The vaccines do not protect you from all types of HPV, so there is still a risk of developing cervical cancer if you are infected with one of these other types.

FAQ

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If you have a normal Pap test three years in a row, you may have a Pap test every three years until age 70, as long as no abnormalities are detected.

Pap testing is one of the great public-health success stories in Canada. Since widespread testing has been introduced in the 1960s, the incidence of cervical cancer has been reduced by 80%.