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Myths and facts about HPV

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:

HPV and multiple partners

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:

  • reassure them that HPV is extremely common – 8 in 10 (80%) of men and women will have it at some point in their lifetime
  • explain that it is not connected to the number of partners they have had
  • explain that many people will have had HPV without ever realising because it doesn’t have symptoms and usually goes away thanks to the immune system – this may help if they feel that they are the ‘only one’ in their friend or family group
  • give or signpost the patient to further information about HPV, in case they want to talk to a partner, friends or family about it. 

HPV and safer sex

‘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:

  • explain the virus can be on the skin in the genital area that isn’t covered by a condom or dental dam, so it can be transmitted by any intimate contact, not just penetrative sex. 

HPV and STIs

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:

  • break down the stigma around it, including some we talk about on this page
  • people understand more clearly how it is passed on.

HPV and long-term relationships

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. 

You could:

  • explain that HPV is common
  • explain how dormancy works and why it might mean someone in a long-term, monogamous relationship could have HPV years down the line
  • give or signpost the patient to further information about HPV – or signpost them to our Helpline on 0808 802 8000
  • offer to speak to a patient along with their partner, if they feel that would be helpful.

HPV and reinfection

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.

HPV and genital warts

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.

HPV and men

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. 

HPV and women who have sex with women

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.

HPV and cleanliness

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. 

HPV and menopause

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:

  • explaining that they are still at risk of HPV, even if they have been through menopause or are over a certain age
  • explaining that cervical screening can help to detect HPV and any cell changes it may have caused.

Useful resources


Patient questions >

Read our suggestions for answering common patient questions about HPV.

The emotional impact of HPV

"Some of our callers say they feel as though they have a ticking time bomb inside them."

Read the blog
Date last updated: 
05 Feb 2021
Date due for review: 
01 Feb 2024
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