If you're familiar with the term HPV, or human papillomavirus as it's known in the science world, then it's likely because you've had the HPV jab (also known as the cervical cancer vaccine). HPV, which can be transmitted sexually, is responsible for 99.7% of cervical cancers. But despite that, knowledge surrounding this potentially cancer-causing virus - which can lay dormant in the body for up to 20 years - is pretty low.
In fact, in a survey previously conducted by Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, it emerged that just over half (51%) of women quizzed were unaware that HPV infection is a risk factor for cervical cancer. So the experts at the charity thought they'd help us clear up a few things up by dispelling some common myths that have been floating around about HPV.
Myths about the HPV virus:
1. HPV is rare
Quite the opposite. It’s actually really common, so common in fact that four in every five people (80%) will have the virus at some point in their lives. This is why clueing ourselves up on the virus is so important.
2. HPV is something to worry about
There are over 100 types of HPV and the majority are nothing to worry about. There are, however, at least 13 high risk types that can cause cancer. That's can, not will. In most cases, if you or any partners get high-risk HPV your bodies will be able to clear the infection, just like it does with any low risk infections. In a few cases the infection can cause abnormalities in the cells of the cervix which, if not detected and monitored, may develop in to cervical cancer. This is why it is important to attend your smear tests when invited, so that any abnormal cells can be caught before they get the chance to develop into cancer.
3. You will know if you have HPV
False. HPV normally has no signs or symptoms so it is very difficult to tell if someone has it. By attending your regular smear tests, high-risk HPV infection and any abnormalities caused by the infection can be identified and treated if needed.
4. Only promiscuous people get HPV
You can get HPV the very first time you have sexual contact, so this is really not true. HPV is passed on through skin to skin contact of the genital area, so if you have had several sexual partners, or one of your partners has, you simply have a higher chance of having come into contact with the virus. But because it's really common, you can be infected even if you have only ever had one partner. The HPV virus can also lie inactive inside the body for up to 20 years, so if you have a long term partner and find out you have HPV this is not an indication that they have been unfaithful!
5. HPV is a young person’s virus
Nope. HPV is passed by skin to skin contact of the genital area so anyone who has ever been sexually active can have HPV. It is more common in young, sexually active people, however, the immune system will usually clear the infection so this isn’t really something to worry about. It's important to remember that HPV can remain dormant for long periods of time, so even if you have been with the same partner for many years or have not been sexually active for a long time, you can still have the virus. That's why it's important to keep attending your smear tests regularly throughout your life, until you are no longer invited.
6. You won’t get HPV if you’re healthy
HPV infections are very common so while having a healthy lifestyle can help your body to protect itself from HPV, the only way to entirely avoid having the virus is abstinence. Yeah, probably not a popular option for most people…..
So where does being healthy come in? Your immune system is responsible for fighting off HPV infection, so the healthier it is the more effectively it can do its job. Eating well, exercising, and, most importantly, not taking up or stopping smoking can all help. However, HPV can affect anyone who is sexually active, even very healthy people, so you can’t fully reduce your chance of getting it no matter how many green juices you drink and yoga classes you go to.
7. HPV doesn’t affect LGBT+ people
It’s a common myth that HPV only affects straight people – in fact according to the LGBT Foundation, 17.8% of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) women of eligible screening age have never been for cervical screening. If you’ve ever had sexual contact of any kind, then you are at risk of getting HPV. This includes oral sex and anal sex, not just penis-in-vagina sex. It’s less common, but HPV can also be transmitted via sharing sex toys, or through any kind of intimate touching. HPV doesn’t discriminate – regardless of your gender identity or sexual orientation, you might pick it up along the way.
8. If you use a condom you won’t get HPV
Not true, sadly. Wearing condoms will reduce your risk of getting the virus, but because HPV can live on the skin in and around the whole genital area, it won't all be covered by a condom. HPV can therefore be transmitted through sexual contact of any kind including any touching or genital to genital contact, as well as oral, vaginal and anal sex.
9. There’s no relationship between smoking and HPV infection
Smoking is actually a major risk factor for developing cervical cancer. If you smoke, your immune system around the cells of the cervix may be weakened, making it harder for the body to prevent and clear high-risk HPV infections which could cause abnormal cells to develop.
10. The HPV vaccine means you won’t get HPV
If you have had the HPV vaccination you are protected against at least 70% of cancer causing HPV strains, but you're absolutely not fully protected. Attending smear tests is just as important if you have been vaccinated or not as it will detect abnormalities caused by other types of HPV.
11. It only affects women
While it's true that HPV causes cervical cancer which is a woman’s disease, it can also lead to penile, anal, and head and neck cancers (among others). All genders have a head and a neck, so both male and females should be protected by vaccination from HPV and should remember to be aware of the effects of infection.
12. If you have HPV you will probably get cancer
It is true that 99.7% of all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, but that doesn't mean that 99.7% of people with HPV will get cancer. Far from it; most people will have HPV without any problem. In order to protect yourself you should make sure you attend your smear tests when invited, get the HPV vaccination if you're eligible, and make sure you know the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer. And don't forget to visit your GP if you are concerned.
Over 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, but if more women understand the steps they can take to reduce their risk, one day it could be a disease of the past. Watch this video to learn more:
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