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June 23, 2021 • read
HPV myths and facts
Summer is many people’s favourite season for making new romantic connections. Keep in mind, summer is also a favourite of another highly contagious virus in the STI family called the Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV.
While it’s one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases and it’s generally manageable in its early stages, both men and women can develop nasty complications, some of which can even be fatal.
To help keep you safe, we’ve gone ahead and laid out some important facts and dispelled common myths.
Myth – Condoms protect men from genital warts and HPV
Condoms can only reduce a man’s chances of getting HPV, and they only work in the area they’re covering. Genital wart infection spreads with just skin-to-skin or oral contact with the affected area, and they can grow on any area that makes contact. That means genitals, but also thighs and even inside the mouth and throat. While they can be managed with medication, or removed in some cases by surgery, they can still come back.
Myth – You’re safe if you’re monogamous
Being in a monogamous relationship might not be enough to protect you against HPV. Your partner could already be infected and not showing any signs or symptoms. This means you can still pass it on or get infected.
Fact – HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world
Three out of four Canadians will have at least one infection in their lifetime. While only women are susceptible to vulvar, vaginal, and cervical cancer, everyone is at risk of developing genital warts, anal cancer, and more. Sure, some people infected with HPV will clear the virus on their own, but some won’t. Basically, anyone who’s ever been sexually active is at risk.
Fact – There are over 100 types of HPV
Roughly 40 of them infect the genital tract. While many low-risk HPV types will clear up on their own, low risk doesn’t mean no risk. Sometimes the virus lays dormant and reactivates later in life to cause genital warts. What this also means is that even if you were infected by one type of HPV and managed to clear the virus on your own, you’re still susceptible to other types of HPV.
Fact – HPV is responsible for nearly 100% of cervical cancer cases
Did you know that cervical cancer is the third most common cancer among Canadian women aged 20 to 40? Every year, approximately 1,400 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed across the country. Its link to HPV is clear. When a woman is infected with certain types of HPV and the virus doesn’t clear on its own, abnormal and pre-cancerous lesions can develop. Pap tests look for these abnormal cells, but if they aren’t detected and treated early enough, cancer could develop.
Symptoms – What do they look like and what to look for
A lasting HPV infection can cause genital warts, which are often the only visible sign of infection. These small skin-coloured growths in the genital regions have all kinds of appearances. They can be raised, flat, small, or large. They are often described as “cauliflower” or “stem”-like. They can grow alone or in clusters. Another reason for concern is that they can grow on the inside of the body weeks or even years after sexual contact. Wherever they are detected, healthcare providers can usually diagnose them via a visual examination.
Fact – It’s never too late for a vaccination and you might even have coverage
There is good news. Vaccines can help protect against certain HPV types that can lead to cervical cancer as well as other HPV-related cancers and diseases. It can also benefit those who have already been infected with HPV.
Many in Canada can even receive the vaccination for free. The process varies by province or territory and by age (everyone can get a shot as young as nine), so check with your local health agency for more information about government coverage where you live. If you don’t qualify for public coverage, many private insurance plans will reimburse some or all of the cost. For more information and vaccination options, click here.
Checklist for your next doctor’s visit
Getting an HPV vaccination is a common topic to bring up at a regular doctor or gynecologist check-up, so be proactive and take the first step.
The HPV vaccination could be for you if any one of the following apply. You
- Are between 9 to 45 years of age;
- Are sexually active;
- Are concerned about cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers and diseases;
- Had a change in your relationship status or your partner;
- Are getting a routine checkup;
- Are renewing your contraception prescription;
- Are receiving a Pap test or routine physical;
- Have a referral for a colposcopy;
- Have a history of HPV infections or other STI.
Remember, HPV and genital warts are extremely common, so there’s nothing to be ashamed about. Staying quiet could also have consequences. If you have any questions about HPV, STIs, or vaccinations, you can see a doctor on Maple for more information.