Did you know that when you attend your cervical screening (smear test), you’re being tested for human papillomavirus?
HPV is an extremely common infection that’s spread through skin-to-skin contact. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by infection with high-risk HPV, which can sometimes cause abnormal cells to develop in the cervix. In the majority of cases, these abnormal cells will go away without the need for treatment. However, sometimes they can become cancerous. This is why cervical screening is so important, as it can detect the cells before they reach that stage.
10 Myths About HPV
1. It’s rare
Quite the opposite. It’s actually really common, so common in fact that four in every five people (80%) will have the virus at some point in their lives. This is why removing stigma around the virus is so important.
2. It’s always something to worry about
There are over 100 types of HPV and the majority are nothing to worry about. However there are 13 high-risk types that can cause cancer. Can – not will. In most cases, if you or any partners get high-risk HPV, your bodies will be able to clear the infection, just like with low-risk infections. In a few cases, the infection can cause abnormalities in the cells of the cervix – which, if not detected and monitored, may develop into cervical cancer.
3. You will know if you have it
False. HPV normally has no signs or symptoms so it is very difficult to tell if someone has it. By attending your regular smear tests, high-risk HPV infection and any abnormalities caused by the infection can be identified and treated if needed.
4. Only promiscuous people get HPV
You can get HPV the very first time you have sexual contact, so this is not true. HPV is passed on through skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, so anyone who has ever had any kind of sexual contact is at risk. If you have had several sexual partners, or one of your partners has, you simply have a higher chance of having come into contact with the virus. However, because HPV is really common, you can get it even if you have only ever had one partner.
HPV can be inactive (dormant) in the body for many years – even decades! – so if you have a long-term partner and find out you have HPV, it does not mean they have been unfaithful.
5. HPV is a young person’s virus
Nope. HPV is passed by skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, so anyone who has ever been sexually active can have HPV. It is important to remember that HPV can remain dormant for long periods of time, so even if you have been with the same partner for many years or have not been sexually active for a long time, you can still have the virus. This is why it’s important to keep attending your smear tests regularly throughout your life, until you are no longer invited.
6. You won’t get it if you’re healthy
HPV infections are very common, so while having a healthy lifestyle can help your body to protect itself from HPV, the only way to entirely avoid having the virus is abstinence.
So where does being healthy come in? Your immune system is responsible for fighting off HPV infection, so the healthier it is, the more effectively it can do its job. So eating well, exercising, and, most importantly, not taking up or stopping smoking can all help. However, HPV can affect anyone who is sexually active, even very healthy people, so you can’t fully reduce your chance of getting it – no matter how many green juices you drink and yoga classes you go to!
7. If you use condoms you won’t get HPV
Not true! Wearing condoms will reduce your risk of getting the virus. However, HPV can live on the skin in and around the whole genital area, which will not be covered by a condom, so it can be transmitted through sexual contact of any kind including any touching or genital to genital contact, as well as oral, vaginal and anal sex.
8. There’s no relationship between smoking and HPV infection
Smoking is actually a major risk factor for developing cervical cancer. If you smoke, your immune system around the cells of the cervix may be weakened, making it harder for the body to prevent and clear high-risk HPV infections which could cause abnormal cells to develop.
9. The HPV vaccine means you won’t get HPV
If you’ve had the HPV vaccination you’re protected against at least 70% of cancer-causing HPV infections, but not fully protected. Attending smear tests is important whether you have been vaccinated or not, as it will detect abnormalities caused by other types of HPV.
10. If you have HPV you will probably get cancer
It is true that 99.7% of all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, but most people will clear HPV without any problem. In order to protect yourself you should make sure you attend your smear tests when invited, get the HPV vaccination if you are eligible, and make sure you know the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer. Do visit your GP if you are concerned.
At Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust they hear from women and other people with a cervix every day who read that they have HPV on their cervical screening results letter, rush to Google it, and then panic when they read it is an STI. They want to challenge the stigma around HPV. While there are some similarities between HPV and some STIs, most of us will have HPV regardless of sexual behaviour. We believe that the level of stigma associated with the virus needs to change. If you’re anxious about going for a smear test then check out this video of Zoe taking you through her own!
This summer we joined forces with SheSpot to co-create the ultimate self-love summer bundle, packed full of incredible sexual wellness products. The Summer box is still available to buy and for every bundle sold we’re donating 5% of profits to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.