Unfortunately, myths and misconceptions about genital HPV abound, and in some cases do considerable harm. Bad information can cause a person to suffer terrible anxiety unnecessarily, to doubt a partner’s faithfulness, or even to undergo painful and expensive treatment that could have been avoided. Most dangerous of all, misinformation may lead people to neglect a very simple procedure that saves lives.
But why? One reality is that some aspects of the virus are still poorly understood, even by medical researchers. There simply are no proven answers to many common questions.
At the same time, much new information about HPV has been learned in recent years, reversing some previous assumptions about the virus. The result is that older publications may be inaccurate, when they mention HPV at all. Likewise, healthcare professionals, writers, and educators who have not kept up with recent research findings may continue to spread misconceptions.
Another difficulty is that to some degree, the overall topic of genital HPV is complex and confusing to everyone, lay person and scientist alike.
Below we take on some of the most common myths and misconceptions we’ve encountered on the topic of genital HPV and offer clear and accurate information in response.
Myths and Misconceptions
Those struggling with this troubling condition or strange new diagnosis rarely discuss it with others, since it would seem unlikely that they would understand. And others—your second-best friend, your cousin, your coworker, your neighbor across the street—likewise feel constrained to keep silent about their HPV, thinking that you wouldn’t understand.
The net result is that very few people ever have the chance to place genital HPV in an accurate context, as the very common virus it really is. According to an article published in 1997 in the American Journal of Medicine, about 74 percent of Americans—nearly three out of four—have been infected with genital HPV at some point in their lives.
Among those ages 15-49, only one in four Americans has not had a genital HPV infection.
It’s true that most often genital HPV produces no symptoms or illness, and so a person who has been infected may never know about it. Experts estimate that at any given time, only about 1% of all sexually active Americans have visible genital warts. Far more women have abnormal Pap tests related to HPV infection, but in many cases health care providers do not explain the link between HPV and cervical infection, perpetuating the misunderstanding.
It is true that a higher number of sexual partners over the course of a lifetime does correlate with a higher risk for STIs, including HPV. This is not because of any moral judgment concerning “casual” sex as compared with “committed” sex, but simply because the more sexual partners you have, the more likely you will have a partner who (knowingly or unknowingly) is carrying an STI.
However, STIs can be passed along as readily in a loving, long-term relationship as in a one-night stand. And HPV is the virus to prove it. At least one study of middle-class, middle-aged women, most of them married with children, found that 21% were infected with cervical HPV. In other studies, according to Nancy Kiviat, MD, a researcher at the University of Washington, about 80% of people who have had as few as four sexual partners have been infected with HPV.
The virus can remain in the body for weeks, years, or even a lifetime, giving no sign of its presence. Or a genital HPV infection may produce warts, lesions, or cervical abnormalities after a latent period of months or even years.
As mentioned above, most people who are infected with genital HPV never know it; their virus does not call attention to itself in any way. In most cases, a person is diagnosed with HPV only because some troubling symptom drove him or her to a health care professional, or some abnormality was revealed in the course of a routine exam.
But although careful examination can identify genital HPV infection, and laboratory tests may even narrow down the identification to a specific type among the two dozen or so that inhabit the genital tract, there is simply no way to find out how long a particular infection has been in place, or to trace it back to a particular partner.
In a monogamous relationship, therefore, just as in an affair or even in an interval of no sexual relationships at all, an HPV diagnosis means only that the person contracted an HPV infection at some point in his or her life.
According to Katherine Stone, MD, genital warts need not “raise a red flag with regard to cancer in anyone’s mind.” There are more than 70 types of human papillomavirus, and most are quite specific in the sites they can invade and the pathology they can cause. Those most strongly associated with cancer are HPV types 16, 18, 31, 45, and, to a lesser degree, half a dozen others. These are known as the “high-risk” types, not because they usually or frequently cause cancer–in fact, cervical cancer is a rare disease in the United States today, and penile cancer even more so–but because, in the infrequent event that cancer does develop, it can usually be traced back to one of these types. Even so, it bears repeating: most women with high-risk HPV on their cervix will not develop cervical cancer.
As for ordinary genital warts, says Doug Lowy, MD, chief of the Laboratory of Cellular Oncology at the National Cancer Institute, “These are caused by HPV types that are virtually never found in cancer.” These are the “low-risk” types, 6, 11, 42, 43, and 44. When not causing genital warts they may cause a transient abnormality in Pap test results, or most often produce no symptoms at all.
In practical terms, a man with genital warts is no more likely than any other sexually active man to transmit cancer-causing HPV types to a partner. Experts do recommend that a woman exposed to genital warts–or any other STI–have regular Pap tests. This is because she may have been exposed to high-risk HPV types during unprotected sexual activity. Regular Pap tests are also recommended for any sexually active woman, since HPV infection is very common. It is worth keeping in mind that both men and women may be infected with, and infectious for, high-risk HPV, regardless of whether or not they have genital warts.
To help sort out the various possibilities, a woman with an abnormal Pap test is often asked to come back to the doctor’s office and have the test repeated. Most nonsignificant reasons for an abnormal result last only a short time, and so repeating the Pap test after a few months usually weeds these out. Even if the result is again abnormal, this rarely means that cancer is imminent. In an overwhelming majority of cases, a truly abnormal Pap test is due to pre-invasive disease, not invasive disease per se.
Follow-up tests such as colposcopy and biopsy can help evaluate the abnormality and remove any potentially malignant cells. If further treatment is recommended, the patient and her healthcare provider usually have several options to consider, and time in which to consider them.
What if a woman with a persistently abnormal Pap test does not receive treatment? This scenario is very unlikely in the developed countries, where the follow-up measures described above are standard practice. But even supposing that a woman went untreated after repeated abnormal Pap results, she still would have the odds on her side, because only one out of four cases of cervical lesions will progress to cancer if left on its own. And treatment is almost always successful in preventing cervical cancer if the abnormal cells are found in time.
But this very effective system of protection can work only when each woman takes responsibility for the first step herself, by having a Pap test at regular intervals. According to the National Cancer Institute, about half of women with newly diagnosed cervical cancer have never had a Pap test, and another 10% have not had a test in the past five years.
The limiting factor here is the state of the immune system itself. According to Thomas Sedlacek, MD, adjunct professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Allegheny University, if an individual’s immune system is impaired—by the use of certain medications, by HIV infection, or by some temporary trauma such as excessive stress, serious illness, or surgery—it may be unable to prevent a recurrence. However, if the immune system is weakened only temporarily, most likely the recurrence will be short-lived.
The concern about life-long recurrences may be based on a misconception rather than a myth. It’s true that at present there is no known cure for genital human papillomavirus. As a virus, it will remain in the infected person’s cells for an indefinite time–most often in a latent state but occasionally producing symptoms or disease, as we have discussed elsewhere. Recent studies from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and from the University of Washington suggest that HPV may eventually be cleared, or rooted out altogether, in most people with well-functioning immune systems. However, in at least some cases the virus apparently does remain in the body indefinitely, able to produce symptoms if the immune system weakens.
The result can be deadly: One in four cases of cervical cancer, and 41% of deaths, occur in women age 65 and older. Continued Paps may be recommended because HPV can recur even after years of latency.
However, according the guidelines published by the American Cancer Society in 2002, women age 70 and older may discontinue screening if they have 3 or more normal Pap tests, and no abnormal tests in the last 10 years.
What’s best for you? Speak with your healthcare provider to see what is recommended, given your own medical history.
Transmission of HPV poses a major challenge to researchers, not only because it involves sexual behavior, which people may or may not feel free to talk about, but also because HPV’s long and variable period of latency makes it virtually impossible to trace back to a specific partner. When considering the infectiousness of treated or untreated warts, therefore, researchers must fall back on indirect observations and on reasoning from what they do know about this virus. Some specialists think that removing genital warts may lower the risk of transmission, since it “de-bulks” the areas of tissue that contain infectious particles. But since the area surrounding any visible warts is also likely to contain infectious HPV particles, removing the warts cannot eliminate the risk.
A person may have good reasons for wanting his or her genital warts removed–they may be uncomfortable physically or psychologically. But removing warts cannot guarantee that the risk of transmission is removed.
The most recent evidence for this comes from a study under way at the University of Washington, which has found a number of genital HPV infections among lesbian women—even in some women who had never had sex with a man. Genital HPV in lesbians has not yet been extensively studied, but researchers suspect the prevalence rates will be lower than among heterosexuals. Even so, the rates will not be low enough to rule out the risk of cervical cancer altogether, so a regularly scheduled Pap test is a smart health measure for gay and straight women alike.
According to recent guidelines drafted by the CDC, “examination of sex partners is not necessary” as follow-up to an abnormal Pap test. It’s certainly possible–even likely–that the partner is or has been infected with the virus, although highly unlikely that he will ever show any symptoms. Nor is it possible to determine whether he can spread HPV to a future partner.
However, if a woman has external genital warts, her partner may still consider scheduling a medical exam. It may be useful for a male partner to talk with a health care provider to gain more information. And of course, if a man starts to notice symptoms of his own, such as unexplained bumps or lesions in his genital area, he should get medical attention at once.
That is not to say condoms are useless. In fact, studies have shown condom use can lower the risk of acquiring HPV infection and reduce the risk of HPV-related diseases, as well as help prevent other STs and unintended pregnancy. For these reasons, condoms should play an important part in any new or non-monogamous sexual relationship.
Adapted from “10 Myths About HPV” by Sandra Ackerman. Reprinted from HPV News (c) 1998 The American Sexual Health Association