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This information is for clinical and non-clinical professionals working in cervical health. It explains common myths about HPV and suggestions for addressing any misconceptions.
Your patients may have heard a lot of myths about HPV, which can sometimes contribute to unnecessary shame and stigma around the virus. It’s important to be aware of any beliefs patients may have, so you can offer accurate information to help them make informed decisions or support a better emotional response to HPV.
On this page:
Worldwide, HPV is the most viral infection of the genital tract. It spreads easily because it is passed on through skin-to-skin contact and can’t be completely protected against. While it’s true that having more partners means someone is more likely to come into contact with HPV, someone may also get it during their first sexual experience. In fact, many people become infected shortly after becoming sexually active.
If a patient is embarrassed about having HPV or feels they will be shamed for it, you can:
‘Safer sex’ usually means using condoms, dental dams or other barrier protection methods during sex. While these practices can help protect against many sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and can also help reduce the risk of getting HPV, it isn’t possible to completely protect against HPV.
If a patient is worried or confused about this, you can:
At Jo’s, we don’t call HPV an STI. While it can be sexually transmitted, we consider HPV a virus passed on through skin-to-skin contact rather than an STI. Framing HPV in this way helps:
When a patient in a long-term relationship is diagnosed with HPV, they may be very distressed. They may worry their partner’s been unfaithful, or feel concerned their partner may think they’ve been unfaithful. But sometimes HPV can lie dormant for many years and then become active again. It can then start causing changes in the cervical cells. We don’t fully understand the reasons this sometimes happens. But it means it isn’t usually possible to work out where HPV has come from.
People can get HPV more than once. HPV isn’t just a single virus – it is an umbrella term for over 200 types. Although we are still learning about HPV, some research shows it’s possible to have the virus, clear it, and then be reinfected with the same type of HPV later in life.
Genital warts are caused by HPV types 6 and 11, which are considered low risk and are not linked to cervical cancer. The high-risk HPV types usually linked with cervical cancer are types 16 and 18. You can reassure patients that having genital warts isn’t connected with cervical cancer. But all women and people with a cervix may be exposed to high-risk HPV as well if they’re sexually active.
In the past, guidelines stated that women who had never had sex with men didn’t need to have cervical screening because it was thought only sex with men could transmit HPV. But we’ve learned more about the virus since then. We now know anyone who’s sexually active can carry and pass on HPV. The types of HPV that affect the genitals can be spread easily through any intimate contact, not just penetrative sex.
Women who have sex with women are at risk of HPV because they are still having skin-to-skin genital contact. This means that cervical screening is still an important test for them, even if they’ve never had sex with a man.
Some of your patients may think washing or douching after sex reduces the risk of getting HPV, but this isn’t true. Getting the virus is not connected with lack of hygiene and washing won’t prevent it.
Women and people who experience menopause can get HPV at any time in their lives. HPV diagnosed after menopause could have been gotten years ago, as the virus can lie dormant for a long time and become active again. But many patients in this age group could be dating and starting new relationships, so may be newly getting HPV.
You can help patients by: