HPV and Cervical Cancer Myths vs. Facts

The human papillomavirus (HPV) has earned its share of media attention. And while much of the information out there is accurate, there is also a lot of myth around HPV infection, the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. HPV is responsible for up to 99% of all cervical cancers. During Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, we asked Dr. Konstantin Zakashansky, a gynecologic oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City who treats women with cervical cancer to dispel myths from facts about HPV and cervical cancer.

Myth: Only Promiscuous Women Get HPV
Fact: Any woman who has had sex can have HPV.

Many people believe that only promiscuous women get HPV. But the truth is that any woman who has had sex, even with just one partner, could have been exposed to HPV. HPV is a very common virus. In fact, about eight out of 10 women will have had HPV at some point in time by the age of 50.

Myth: A regular Pap test is enough to protect women against cervical cancer.
Fact: A Pap test alone is not enough to protect women against cervical cancer.

While the Pap test has helped significantly decrease the number of cervical cancer cases in the United States, no test is perfect. Pre-cancerous cells in some women are missed. For women age 30 and older, getting the HPV test along with a Pap increases the ability to identify women at risk to nearly 100 percent. Women under age 30 should get the HPV test if their Pap results are inconclusive.

Myth: If you have HPV, you will probably get cervical cancer.
HPV is very common. But cervical cancer is not.

The truth is that having HPV does not mean you have or will get cervical cancer. Most women will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lives, and for most women, HPV infections will go away on their own without causing any problems. But in some women, the infection persists over a long period of time and causes abnormal cells to form, which can then develop into cervical cancer. With HPV testing, women with certain "high-risk" HPV infection can be identified and monitored carefully. If the HPV infection causes pre-cancerous cell changes, these can be detected and treated early before cervical cancer ever has the chance to develop.

Myth: Women with HPV will experience warning symptoms.
HPV infections usually do not cause any symptoms.

Many women think that if they don't have warning signs, they certainly could not have HPV or cervical cancer. This is not true! Although some "low risk" types of HPV can cause genital warts, the "high-risk" types that are associated with cervical cancer often go completely undetected – that is, until abnormal cells develop. That's why routine screening with Pap and HPV testing is so important.

That said, symptoms of cervical cancer can include:

    • Vaginal bleeding or discharge after intercourse, between periods or after sexual intercourse
    • Pelvic pain or pain during intercourse

Myth: There is nothing I can do to prevent cervical cancer other than Pap or HPV testing.
Besides the HPV vaccination, your risk for cervical cancer can be minimized by avoiding:

    • Smoking
    • Multiple sexual partners
    • Sexual intercourse at an early age
    • Chlamydia infection
    • Weakened immune system or HIV infection

Myth: If a woman gets the HPV vaccine, she no longer needs the Pap or HPV test.
Girls and women who get the HPV vaccine will still need to be tested with the Pap test and HPV test.

The HPV vaccine only protects against two of the more than a dozen types of cancer-causing HPV types. Even then, vaccination is only fully effective when given to women who have not yet been exposed to HPV. That means the ideal candidate for the vaccine is an adolescent girl or young woman who is not yet sexually active. The bottom line: All women, including those who are vaccinated, need regular screening with a Pap and (if they are age 30 or older) an HPV test.