HPV myths: the most common misconceptions about the sexually transmitted infection 9 months ago

HPV myths: the most common misconceptions about the sexually transmitted infection

The majority of people don't fully understand what HPV is.

A new study has shown that 75 percent of adults in Ireland aren't completely aware of what the virus is, how it's contracted, or how many people are likely to be infected with it in their lifetimes.

However, despite the lack of information, HPV is actually the most common STI in Ireland.

So, in order to get a better understanding of the virus, we talked to Senior Oncology Nurse from the Marie Keating Foundation, Bernie Carter.

She told Her that there are many myths around HPV, from the types of cancer it can cause to the level of risk the infection carries to who can actually contract it.

To counteract some of the misinformation that's already out there, here are six common myths associated with Ireland's most common STI - and the information you should know to have a better understanding of the infection.

Myth 1: All HPV infections can cause cancer 

They can't.

Although HPV is often associated exclusively with cervical cancer, high risk types of the infection can lead to other cancers such as vaginal, anal, and cancer of the throat.

However, the vast majority of HPV infections cannot cause cancer at all.

Carter says that it's important to note that 90 percent of HPV infections are low risk - and will not cause any form of cancer. Rather, many of them will simply clear up on their own, without a person even knowing they were infected.

“HPV includes more than 100 varieties of infection," she says, "and it’s very important to know this because a lot of them are low risk which means they won’t cause cancer, but can cause genital warts and other conditions.

"Roughly about 13 HPV types are high risk, which means they can cause cancer if the virus persists.

"The virus often has no symptoms, and a lot of the time the body’s immune system does clear the infection on its own. 90 percent of time, this will happen - but it’s the infections that are high risk HPV types that persist that we need to be wary of."

Myth 2: You can only get HPV if you have penetrative sex 

In fact, you can get HPV from any form of intimate skin-to-skin contact.

Unlike some other STIs that can only be transmitted through bodily fluids, HPV is passed via close skin-to-skin contact.

This includes vaginal sex, oral sex, anal sex, and any form of genital touching.

"Basically, anyone who is sexually active is at risk," says Carter.

"Our concern, however, is around high risk HPV, not the low risk. Low risk HPV can cause genital warts, but they won’t cause cancer."

Myth 3: You can't contract HPV if you use a condom 

You can.

As mentioned above, HPV is passed from partner to partner through close skin-to-skin contact - so while a condom may provide some protection, there are still many other ways that the virus can infect a person.

"Condoms are not entirely preventative," says Carter.

"They can protect against STIs spread by bodily fluids, but are far less effective in protecting against those spread by skin to skin contact, like HPV."

Myth 4: People in same-sex relationships can't contract HPV 

They can.

Just as HPV is not only transmitted through penetrative sex, it is also not only passed between men and women.

Carter says that there is a common misconception that people in same-sex relationships do not need to worry about HPV, or that women who are gay cannot contract it.

They can, and should always go for their regular smear test.

Similarly, although STIs are more common in people who have multiple sexual partners, people in long-term relationships can still pass HPV to their partners.

"A lot of people think that if you’ve had a lot of sexual partners, you’re more at risk," says Carter.

"And although a higher number of sexual partners does correlate with a higher risk of STIs, it doesn’t eliminate the risk."

Myth 5: Only young people can contract HPV 

Anybody who is or has been sexually active can contract HPV, including people under the age of 25 and over the age of 60.

In fact, the virus is most common in people in their teens and early 20s, however it can take years for a high risk HPV type to develop into cancer.

“Cervical cancer is more common in younger women, but that doesn’t mean that older women can’t get it," says Carter.

"The average of a cervical cancer diagnosis is 46. Smears are offered to women between the ages of 25 and 60, but you can opt for one outside of this bracket."

Myth 6: Men can get tested for HPV in Ireland 

They can't.

There is no current way to test for HPV in men. Rather, we must rely on the vaccination of boys from a young age to protect both men and women against the infection.

About one quarter of the HPV linked cancers in Ireland recorded every year affect men.

It is estimated that by 2020, cases of oral cancers in men will overtake the rates of cervical cancer in women.

You can find out more about HPV on the HSE website.