Human papillomavirus infections, otherwise known as HPV infections, are incredibly common. However, the notion that they are sexually transmitted infections and how they might develop into warts or even cancer, has caused the disease to be widely misunderstood. Today, we’re going to debunk 10 common myths about HPV infections!
Myth #1: HPV tests can’t replace pap smear tests, right? What does HPV infections have to do with cervical cancer?
Over 95% of cervical cancers are caused by high-risk HPV infections. When HPV virus infects cervical cells, it can lead to abnormal cell changes (CIN1). And when these infections are persistent, these abnormal cell changes might progress from CIN1 to CIN2 and CIN3 which are precancerous cell changes that can eventually lead to cervical cancer when left untreated.
While the traditional pap smear tests are used to check for precancerous cell changes on the cervix (from CIN1 to CIN3), HPV tests look for the presence of the HPV virus in patient samples. By testing for HPV, patients can identify their risk of cancer before the development of precancerous cell changes, and when combined with regular screening and early treatment, can significantly decrease their cervical cancer risk.
The World Health Organization and the Hong Kong Department of Health recognize HPV testing as a highly sensitive and highly effective cervical cancer screening method. As such, both organizations now recommend HPV tests as the first-line cervical screening test.
Myth #2: If I have only one regular sex partner, I won’t get HPV?
Well, of course, the more sex partners you have, the greater the risk of getting an HPV infection. However, having only one regular sex partner doesn’t mean you’re not at risk of HPV infection. HPV commonly spreads via sexual contact or through contact with infected skin. Even if there is only one regular sex partner, should either one of them has an HPV infection, the virus can easily spread to the other person through sexual intercourse, anal sex, oral sex, or sharing sex toys. Contact with infected skin, mucous membranes, or bodily fluids can also spread the virus. Although the use of condom might offer some protection, infection can still occur through contact with parts of the skin not covered by the condom.
In fact, HPV infection is very common. Research shows that 80% of men and women will likely acquire HPV in their lifetime. In addition to engaging in unsafe sex, even those who have never had penetrative sex or have only one regular sex partner may still be at risk of infection.
Myth #3: I thought men can’t get HPV? Can they even test for it?
Men are not immune to HPV infection. In fact, the virus can also cause health issues for men such as genital warts, and even penile cancer and other cancers. HPV infections can spread during sex and close skin-to-skin touching during sex, even with the use of a condom. Therefore, it is crucial to increase public awareness on HPV infection in men, and establish means for early detection and prevention, to help men protect themselves and their partners against the virus.
There is a wide misconception among men that they can only test for HPV in hospitals or clinics using penile swabs, a process which can be daunting considering how painful and uncomfortable the ordeal must seem. Thankfully, there is now an HPV urine test option available for both men and women. Men can now test for the virus with their partners at home by simply providing a urine sample, saving much unneeded pain and hassle.
Myth #4: Can’t HPV vaccines prevent HPV infections completely?
The effectiveness of HPV vaccines is highly dependent on when the vaccine is administered. Ideally, HPV vaccines should be administered prior to virus exposure or before the person becomes sexually active. But for those who are already infected, the vaccine might become less effective.
The most comprehensive HPV vaccine available commercially only covers 7 high-risk and 2 low-risk HPVs. Considering that there are over 100 HPV subtypes, of which 14 are high-risk HPVs that can lead to cancer, HPV vaccines might only provide limited protection against the virus. This means that regular HPV screening is still of vital importance post-vaccination.
Myth #5: I don’t need to test for HPV if I’ve completed my gynecology exam, right?
In Hong Kong, most gynecology exams only include tests such as breast exams, pap smear tests, and colposcopy exams. They usually do not include HPV tests. However, as we’ve mentioned previously, pap smear tests cannot replace an HPV test, and a negative pap smear result cannot rule out HPV infection. Overlooking regular HPV testing may lead to the development of precancerous changes in the cervix, or even cervical cancer.
Myth #6: I thought only middle-aged women need to screen for HPV?
According to statistics from the Hong Kong Hospital Authorities between 2010 to 2018, over 50% of women diagnosed with cervical cancer are in the age brackets of 15-44 and 65+, while over 40% are aged 45-64. This shows that women of any age can be at risk of developing cervical cancer. Also, it takes 15-20 years for an HPV infection to turn into cervical cancer. That means if a 55 year old women was diagnosed with cervical cancer, it is very possible that she unknowingly had a high-risk HPV infection when she was 40 years old. Getting regular cervical screening at an earlier age, and checking for HPV infection or cancerous lesions, is highly effective at lowering the risk of developing cervical cancer.
Myth #7: No symptoms mean no HPV infection?
HPV infections can be asymptomatic, depending on the HPV subtype.
Low-risk HPVs might produce more obvious symptoms, including genital warts on the prepuce, glans of the penis, urethral opening, anus, vulva, labia, vagina, or cervix, and skin warts on the hands and feet.
In contrast, high-risk HPVs rarely cause symptoms. However, persistence infection can lead to precancerous lesions, and eventually develop into cancer. Take cervical cancer as an example. It can take 15-20 years for a HPV infection to turn into cervical cancer, and over those 15-20 years, there is likely no obvious symptoms. Should that HPV infection be detected earlier, access to proper diagnosis and treatment can significantly reduce the risk of cervical cancer development.
Note: If you have an HPV infection, but have no symptoms, you are still at risk of spreading the infection to others.
Myth #8: I thought HPV tests needed to be done by a medical professional? Isn’t the process embarrassing, painful, and inconvenient?
Getting an HPV test at hospitals and clinics often involves collecting samples from the cervix/penis using a spatula/swab, a process which can cause embarrassment or discomfort.
Now, however, there is also the option of doing an HPV DNA urine test. By simply providing a urine sample, where you can get tested for HPV infection and get an accompanying lab report to go with it.
INDICAID™ HPV Urine Test (with Report)
The INDICAID HPV Urine Test is an accurate, private and easy-to-use cervical cancer screening test that detects the presence of HPV. Empowered by the patented PHASiFY technology for urine DNA concentration and Oxford Nanopore Technologies (ONT), the test can detect 27 types of HPV (14 high-risk HPVs and 13 low-risk HPVs) in urine samples⁺, providing you a more efficient, convenient and comprehensive analysis of your cervical cancer risk.
• Detect 27 types of HPV at once, lowering the risk of developing over 95% of cervical cancer
• Non-invasive, painless, private, easy-to-use
• Suitable for men & women, protecting yourself and your partner from infection
• Sample pick-up / drop-off service
• Digital lab test report in 5 working days after sample submission
• Complimentary Pap smear test when high-risk HPV detected, offering you an extra check-up for precancerous lesionLearn more →
Myth #9: The HPV virus can’t spread from mothers to their fetus?
The HPV virus is usually transmitted through sexual activities. However, unbeknownst to many, it is possible for the virus to spread from a mother to her fetus. Studies have shown that genetic material from the HPV virus can be found in the endometrium, ovaries, amniotic fluid, placenta, and blood from the umbilical cord. This means that it is possible for the fetus to get infected with the virus after direct contact with infected maternal cells during delivery.
Myth #10: If I’m not having sex anymore, does it mean I won’t get HPV-related diseases?
It can take 15-20 years before an HPV infection in the cervix turns into cervical cancer. Considering how most HPV infections do not cause obvious symptoms, it is possible for someone to have an active HPV infection even when he or she is no longer having sex. That means a persistent HPV infection stemming from many years ago can very well be the cause of precancerous cell changes found in the present.