Sites like TikTok are full of information about human papillomavirus (HPV). But a lot of what you see on social media can be incomplete, misleading or just plain wrong. Robin Lacour, MD, a gynecologic oncologist with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, helped clear up some myths surrounding this virus and the vaccine that can help prevent it.
“HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can cause issues such as genital warts, precancer of the genital organs and certain types of cancer,” Dr. Lacour said. Getting the HPV vaccine can help prevent all these types of cancer. That’s why HPV vaccines are recommended for both males and females.
MD Anderson Cancer Center recommends that everyone aged 9 to 26 should get the HPV vaccine. It’s most effective when it’s given at ages 11 to 12. Unvaccinated men and women ages 27 to 45 can also get the HPV vaccine and should talk to their doctor about its benefits. It can help protect against many different types of HPV.
Here’s the truth behind nine myths about HPV.
Myth: You can only contract HPV through sexual intercourse.
Fact: There are many strains of HPV—it is a common virus that lives on the skin and can be passed from person to person by direct skin contact. While most cases are sexually transmitted, people can also become infected through close skin-to-skin contact, nonpenetrative sexual activity and oral sex.
Myth: Only women can get HPV.
Fact: Both men and women can become infected with HPV. About 80% of people will get an HPV infection at some point in their lives. And HPV can lead to cancer in women and men. HPV-related cancers include:
- Genital-area cancers such as cervical cancer, vulvar cancer and vaginal cancer in women
- Penile cancer in men
- Throat cancer, mouth cancer, tonsil cancer and anal cancer in any gender
Myth: People with HPV show symptoms.
Fact: Most people with HPV don’t know they’re infected and never develop symptoms or health problems from it. That’s because, in most cases, your immune system fights off the infection within a couple of years. But even though you don’t have symptoms, you could spread the virus to sexual partners.
Myth: Any symptoms of HPV infection would show up within a few weeks.
Fact: You could develop symptoms years after having sex with a person infected with HPV.
Myth: You don’t need the HPV vaccine if you get regular Pap tests.
Fact: Pap tests (Pap smears), which are usually performed along with a pelvic exam, can identify suspicious, abnormal or precancerous cells from your cervix. But the HPV vaccine can help prevent these cells from changing in the first place. Women with abnormal Pap tests may need an HPV test to evaluate the abnormal cells more closely and screen for cervical cancer.
Myth: HPV infections can be cured.
Fact: There is no treatment or cure for the virus itself. However, many of the conditions that are caused by HPV can be treated. Genital warts can be treated by applying prescription medications. Precancerous lesions can be excised (cut out). And invasive cancer can be treated with surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
Myth: If you’re diagnosed with HPV you will get cancer.
Fact: Being infected with HPV does not mean you will get cancer. While several cancers are typically caused by an HPV infection, in most cases, the body will clear up the infection on its own. But, because HPV increases your risk for these cancers, it’s best to get vaccinated.
Vaccines heighten your immune system response and improve your body's natural reaction to HPV. Even though your immune system might fight off the infection, you don’t want to take the chance that you might develop cancer.
Myth: The HPV vaccine has dangerous side effects.
Fact: The HPV vaccine (Gardasil 9) was found to be safe and effective in clinical trials and ongoing research, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Like most vaccines, it may cause mild side effects. Some people report pain, redness or swelling at the injection site, fever, muscle or joint pain, headache or fatigue. Some people become dizzy or faint—fainting after any vaccine is more common in adolescents than older or younger people, and this vaccine is often administered to adolescents.
Myth: The HPV vaccine causes infertility.
Fact: The HPV vaccine does not cause fertility problems, according to the CDC. In fact, it can help prevent some fertility-related issues since it helps protect against precancers or cancer. Treating cervical precancers could put women at risk for problems that can lead to preterm birth. Treating cancer with chemotherapy or radiation can affect fertility in men and women. And women who need a hysterectomy as part of cancer treatment can’t become pregnant.
The bottom line
HPV infection is serious—it can lead to health problems such as genital warts, precancerous conditions and several types of cancer. You can be infected with HPV without knowing it, and you can spread it to others. A safe, effective vaccine can help reduce your risk of HPV infection and related complications. If you would like to learn more about protecting yourself from HPV, reach out to Banner Health to connect with a health care provider.