Human Papillomavirus: Myths & Misconceptions
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in America, with health effects that range from genital warts to cancer: vaginal, vulvar, throat, cervical, penile or anal.
More than 150 strains of HPV exist, though not all of them are detrimental to human health, and in 2006, a vaccine for human papillomavirus was released in the United States. Two more vaccines have been added since. The HPV vaccine contains the most aggressive strains of HPV that cause both genital warts and genital cancers.
HPV and its vaccines are surrounded by all kinds of myths and misconceptions. Here are some of the more commonly perpetrated ones, followed by the science-backed reality.
Myth: HPV affects only women.
Reality: Men can contract, spread and show HPV symptoms, such as genital warts and cancer of the penis, throat or anus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that girls and boys between the ages of 9 and 12 get vaccinated in order to prevent up to 90 percent of cancer later in life.
Myth: The vaccine harms fertility.
Reality: Looking at the facts, since the vaccine's release in 2006, during which time hundreds of millions of doses have been administered, no data support the claim that women who receive the vaccine have fertility issues. Cancer and its treatment, however, can lead to infertility.
So why the misconception? A 2018 study published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health linked a downward slope of female fertility to the increased deployment of the human papillomavirus vaccine. But apparently, the study was poorly constructed and later was retracted due to a lack of conclusive evidence. The damage, however, had been done.
Vaccinate your children. That way, they have a chance to stay healthy enough to have children of their own.
Myth: Once I have HPV, I have it for life.
Reality: Yes, human papillomavirus is a virus, but that doesn't mean your body will never get rid of it. Most people—yes, most—have had HPV and cleared the virus without ever knowing they had it, because most strains go away on their own within two years.
Men cannot yet be tested for HPV, but women should be tested regularly with Pap smears. Recommendations vary as to Pap smear and HPV test frequency. Check out guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the American Cancer Society. Some people may well have the virus linger in their body for many years; it depends on the individual's ability to produce the antibodies to fight the human papillomavirus infection and to recognize they've been infected in the first place.
Myth: HPV causes warts that appear only on the genitals.
Reality: Many people do not realize that warts on parts of the body other than the genitals can also be symptoms of human papillomavirus.
These three types of warts are caused by HPV strains but are not necessarily caught from sexual activity:
- Common warts. These appear on the hands and fingers and are usually painless, but left untreated, they can bleed and become painful.
- Flat warts. Presenting as raised lesions with flat tops, flat warts appear on women's legs; men and children tend to get them on their face.
- Plantar warts. Found most often on the bottom of feet, these warts are coarse and tough and can be painful.
Myths and misconceptions about viruses and their vaccines will always exist. The important step is to do the research, understand the facts about human papillomavirus and try your best to stay safe. And that will keep your partners safe, too.