First, something that isn’t a myth: There’s a pretty good chance you’ll contract HPV within your lifetime.
That’s not alarmist or overblown, it’s just a fact. Sorry. It’s the most common STI in the US. An estimated 42 percent of Americans between age 18 and 59 are infected with it right now, according to the most recent stats from the National Center for Health Statistics. Eighty-five percent of women will be infected in their lifetimes, and the CDC offers this bleak fact: “HPV is so common that almost every person who is sexually-active will get HPV at some time in their life if they don’t get the HPV vaccine.” And while not every strain of HPV causes cancer, more than one in five people are infected with the kind that does.
Given all this, it’s weird that there’s such an utter lack of awareness about the basics of this disease—it’s the kind of mass-scale misinformation Alex Jones could only dream of spreading.
“One of the things that surprises me in my practice is that there’s still a number of people who have no idea [about HPV] at that first visit,” says James Rocco, HPV researcher and professor at Ohio State University School of Medicine. I’d say at least a third of patients, when I bring up, ‘Hey, this could come from HPV,’ they’re surprised.”
You don’t want to be one of Rocco’s patients, returning home to Google the disease only to be hit with more conflicting facts and figures, so we’ve outlined some of the most pervasive HPV myths below.
Who, me? I’m a dude. Surely I’m not at risk.
Not to get all “you’re not special” on you, but—you’re not. “During 2013–2014, prevalence of any and high-risk genital HPV for adults aged 18–59 was 45.2 percent and 25.1 percent in men,” according to the CDC. Those stats don’t lie. And you should know, too, that rates of HPV-related cancers are on the rise among men.
Condoms protect you.
Yes, you should be using condoms. Unfortunately, no, they don’t protect so well against STIs that are spread through skin-to-skin contact. “It probably offers some protection,” Rocco explains. “But it’s not going to protect anyone from oral sex…and there’s still some skin-to-skin contact that’s occurring.”
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If your partner contracts HPV and you don’t, then they cheated on you.
“Sometimes these things come up when we try to…let’s say soften a conflict that could occur between a husband and wife, if one partner has it,” Rocco says carefully. It’s one of those commonly held perceptions that contributes to the surrounding stigma associated with HPV. It’s also not true.
In general, yes, HPV is an STD, and it’s most likely—but not always—caused by sexual activity. “Theoretically, it could be caused by less intimate sexual activities—oral to oral contact, deep kissing and things like that,” Rocco says. “Theoretically, it could be spread by sharing a toothbrush.”
A diagnoses means you just contracted it.
This myth ties into the one above—but Rocco says we actually don’t know what the latency period is for the virus.
“I think one of the things that’s hard for people is we don’t really have a great handle on whether it’s from exposure from a long, long time ago—particularly for men—or whether it’s more recent…and maybe the inability to answer some of these tricky questions is where the roots of some of these misperceptions come from,” Rocco says.
When rates of HPV-related head and neck cancers in men started climbing, he says that the initial thought was that those cases must have been recent—that the patient must have had oral sex with a woman who had HPV in the not-too-distant past. (Enter the cheating kerfuffles.) But most women are exposed early in their lives—typically in their late teens and early twenties, Rocco explains—which is probably true for men, too.
Negative STI test? You’re in the clear.
Oh, how we wish we could tell you that’s true. But the good people at Planned Parenthood will tell you that routine testing for STDs includes screening for HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and hepatitis B and C. (Sometimes herpes.) There actually isn’t widespread HPV testing available, and most medical providers don’t add HPV in there—yes, even for women—unless a Pap test returns concerning results.
Okay, so I have HPV. No sweat, I’ll just get treated.
This STD is a little more complex because it’s a virus, not an infection. You can treat the associated problems (warts, lesions, etc.), but no treatment for HPV exists. (Typically, it goes away on its own, usually within a few years.)
The HPV vaccine makes youth sex rates skyrocket.
This one’s a favorite among the religious right and pearl-clutchers everywhere, but there’s absolutely no evidence that says young people who get vaccinated have sex at a younger age or with more partners.
An HPV diagnosis means cancer.
“Even though this cancer’s growing and growing and more people are getting it, the risk of a particular HPV infection leading to cancer is still pretty low,” Rocco says.
And in fact, in a weird twist—should you be facing down a cancer diagnoses, you almost want it to be HPV-related, "rather than smoking-related," Rocco says, "because the cure rate is much better for those that are HPV-related than those that are not. It significantly improves rates of survival.”
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