Although the human papillomavirus (HPV) is quite common, facts surrounding it can be confusing.
Who can get HPV? How do they get it? Can it be treated? How safe and effective are HPV vaccines?
These and other questions have led to misinformation among men, women and parents trying to make decisions about the HPV vaccine for their children.
With several strains of HPV linked to cancer, MD Anderson experts — Lois Ramondetta, M.D., professor in Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine, and Erich Sturgis, M.D., professor in Head and Neck Surgery and Epidemiology — help dispel common HPV myths.
“Many HPV-related cancers can be prevented if people know the truth,” Sturgis says.
Myth #1: Only women can get HPV.
Truth: HPV is common among both men and women. About 80% of people will get an HPV infection at some point in their lives.
In most cases, HPV goes away on its own. When it remains, it can lead to health problems such as genital warts and several types of cancer. This includes cervical cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer and oropharyngeal cancer (tonsils and base of tongue).
Myth #2: People with HPV show symptoms.
Truth: Most people with HPV don’t know they’re infected and never develop symptoms or health problems from it.
In 90% of cases, your immune system fights off the infection within two years.
Myth #3: You must have sexual intercourse to get HPV.
Truth: HPV is spread by intimate skin-to-skin contact. While most cases are sexually transmitted, people who haven’t had intercourse can become infected.
Using condoms helps, but they don’t completely protect you against the virus. They don’t cover all of the genital skin.
Myth #4: There are treatments for HPV.
Truth: There aren’t treatments for the virus. But there are ways to treat HPV-related health problems, such as precancerous lesions and genital warts.
Myth #5: HPV interferes with pregnancy.
Truth: In the majority of cases, having HPV doesn’t impact a woman’s ability to become pregnant.
If you’re pregnant and have HPV, you can get genital warts or develop abnormal cell changes on your cervix. Regular screening can find these and your doctor can treat them.
Becoming pregnant after receiving the HPV vaccine is safe. The vaccine doesn’t affect a fetus.
Myth #6: The HPV vaccine protects you for life.
Truth: The vaccine is effective for at least 10 years. But doctors are optimistic that it will provide more long-lasting protection.
If further study shows the vaccine is losing its effectiveness, a booster vaccine may be required.
Myth #7: HPV vaccines are all the same.
Truth: There are a few key differences in the three HPV vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Cervarix (HPV 2) and Gardasil (HPV 4) protect against the most common HPV types and against cervical, anal, vulvar, vaginal, penile and oropharyngeal cancers. Only Gardasil protects against the HPV types most likely to cause genital warts. These vaccines prevent about 70% of cervical cancers.
The latest vaccine, Gardasil 9 (HPV 9), protects against nine types of HPV, including five that other vaccines don’t cover. It also will prevent about 90% of cervical cancers.
Your doctor will determine the most appropriate vaccine for you or your child.
Myth #8: The HPV vaccine increases sexual activity.
Truth: No research links the HPV vaccine to increases in sexual activity.
Boys and girls who get the vaccine don’t have sex earlier than those who haven’t received the vaccine. Also, they don’t have more partners after they become sexually active.
Myth #9: The HPV vaccine may cause dangerous medical problems.
Truth: The HPV vaccine is a safe drug and doesn’t contribute to any serious health issues.
Like any vaccine or medicine, the vaccine may cause mild reactions. The most common are pain or redness in the arm where the shot is given.
Myth #10: You got the HPV vaccine, so you can skip your Pap test.
Truth: Absolutely not. Because no vaccine prevents all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, vaccinated women age 21 to 29 should still receive Pap tests every three years.
In addition to Pap tests, women age 30 to 64 also should be tested for HPV every five years. This exam checks your cervix for the virus that can cause abnormal cells that lead to cervical cancer. It may show that more frequent screening is needed.
Women age 65 or older should discuss their individual need for screening with their doctor.
“The HPV vaccine protects against high-risk types of HPV that can cause cancer,” Ramondetta says. “Boys and girls age 11 to 12 should receive the vaccine. That’s when the immune system is at its best to respond to the vaccine.”
Yet, females up to age 26 and males up to age 21 (and up to 26 in certain situations) also can receive the vaccine. “It is a health vaccine to prevent cancer. So don’t wait until it’s too late,” Ramondetta says.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center online or call 877-632-6789.