As the stigma continues around HPV - 7 myths that you need to stop believing

13th Feb 19 | Lifestyle

It's far more common than most people think.

If you’re a woman, you might be familiar with the term HPV – but do you actually know what is?

New research suggests that a lot of us are still in the dark about what diagnosis actually means for your health. A survey of more than 2,000 women by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found that misinformation around the virus is common, with many associating it with ‘fear’ or ‘shame’.

Almost 40% said they’d worry about what others would think, if they explained they had HPV, and more than 40% would suspect their partner had been unfaithful. A further 70% of the women said they’d be scared to find out they had HPV and two thirds said they would worry it meant they had cancer.

Worryingly, campaigners fear that women will avoid potentially life-saving cervical cancer screenings because of the stigma.

HPV stands for human papillomavirus, and is a common infection that’s spread through oral sex or genital contact.

Some eight in 10 women will have a form of the HPV infection in their lifetime, but what exactly does that mean and should you be worried if does get picked up in your smear test results?

To iron out the false theories, we spoke to Imogen Pinnell, health information manager from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, about the most common myths around HPV.

1. It’s rare

“Quite the opposite,” says Pinnell. “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 removing stigma around the virus is so important.”

2. It’s always something to worry about

“There are over 200 types of HPV and the majority are nothing to worry about. However there are 13 high-risk types that can cause cancer,” says Pinnell.

“Can, not will,” she stresses. “In most cases, if you or any partners you have get high-risk HPV your bodies will be able to clear the infection, just like with 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 into cervical cancer.

“This is why it’s 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 it

“False,” says Pinnell. HPV normally has no signs or symptoms so it’s 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,” says Pinnell, “so this is not true.

“HPV is passed on through skin to skin contact of the genital area, so anyone who has ever had any kind of sexual contact is at risk. 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.

“However, because HPV is really common, you can get it even if you have only ever had one partner.

“HPV can be inactive (dormant) in the body for many years – even decades! So if you have a long term partner and find out you have HPV, it does not mean they have been unfaithful.

“This is why all women are invited to attend smear tests because most people are likely to be exposed to HPV at some point.”

Woman holding a condom
Condoms don’t necessarily protect you from HPV (Thinkstock/PA)

5. If you use a condom you won’t get HPV

“Again, not true,” says Pinnell. “Wearing condoms will reduce your risk of getting the virus. However, HPV can live on the skin in and around the whole genital area, which will not be covered by a condom, so it can be transmitted through sexual contact of any kind including any touching or genital to genital contact, as well as oral, vaginal and anal sex.”

6. The HPV vaccine means you won’t get HPV

Pinnell explains: “If you have had the HPV vaccination you are protected against at least 70% of cancer causing HPV infections, however you are 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.

HPV vaccination
HPV vaccination (Thinkstock/PA)

7.   If you have HPV you will probably get cancer

“It is true that 99.7% of all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, but most people will clear HPV without any problem,” assures Pinnell.

“In order to protect yourself you should make sure you attend your smear tests when invited, get the HPV vaccination if you are eligible, and make sure you know the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer.

“Do visit your GP if you are concerned.”

I’ve been diagnosed – what happens next?

Pinnell says that if you are told you have HPV, there’s usually no need to worry.
“Most of us will get rid of HPV thanks to our immune systems and never know that we had it. HPV is common but, thankfully, HPV-related cancers are rare,” she assures.

The UK will soon move to HPV primary testing. “Your smear test appointment will stay the same, but your sample will be tested for high-risk strains of HPV. If high-risk HPV is found, the same sample will be looked at for cell changes,” explains Pinnell.

“If cell changes are not found, your results letter will tell you when to come back for screening. You should be invited back in one year, to make sure your immune system has got rid of HPV.”

Reassuringly, the NHS say that most HPV infections are cleared by your immune system within two years.

“If cell changes are found though, you will be sent for more tests, known as colposcopy,” says Pinnell.

This is painless examination in which a doctor or specialist nurse uses a large magnifying glass to look closely look at the skin-like covering of the cervix.

A colposcopy can confirm whether there are abnormal cells in your cervix and whether you need further treatment to have them removed.

If you have further questions or concerns about HPV, you can call Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust helpline on 0808 802 8000

© Press Association 2019