There's a lot of info out there about human papillomavirus—better known as HPV—and a lot of it is garbage, so Cosmopolitan.com spoke with Alyssa Dweck, MD, the assistant clinical professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and co-author of V is for Vagina, to get the real deal on HPV.
1. The myth: There's no data that says how safe the vaccine really is so you shouldn't get it.
The truth: Actually the majority of vaccine recipients have had no significant side effects, so unless that changes, it's safe and you should get it.
2. The myth: It's more effective to just get a pap smear afterward than the HPV vaccine beforehand.
The truth: The pap is a screening test to see if you have abnormal or precancerous cells on the cervix, but the vaccination for HPV is intended to prevent HPV infection in the first place so you don't develop those cells. It's definitely preferred to get vaccinated for prevention against the most common strains of HPV rather than waiting for an abnormality to arise and then catching it later.
3. The myth: If you get genital warts, that can lead to cervical cancer.
The truth: Other than the fact that both genital warts and cervical cancer are caused by HPV (but they're caused by different strains of the same virus), there is no relationship between the two.
4. The myth: Older women don't need to be tested for HPV.
The truth: Actually, it's most normal to test and screen for HPV at ages 30 to 65, so there's not really any age when it's no longer advisable.
5. The myth: If you have an abnormal pap smear, you probably have cervical cancer.
The truth: There's no reason to jump to conclusions here since abnormal pap smears suggest an early abnormality or precancer. It takes a long time for this to progress to cervical cancer, and most precancers actually regress and resolve on their own, so stressing about it when it could take care of itself is totally unnecessary.
6. The myth: Lesbians can't get HPV.
The truth: HPV is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact so lesbians can absolutely transmit this virus, especially if one partner has had multiple other partners, and possibly male partners, in their past.
7. The myth: If you've always used condoms, there's no way you can be at risk for HPV.
The truth: Condoms only cover so much of the genital area and since HPV is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, any genital contact is fair game for transmission. With that said, condoms can lower risk of transmission of HPV and other STDs, so you should absolutely still use them, but they're no guarantee either.
8. The myth: Only women can get HPV.
The truth: Women, men, and children can all get HPV. Sadly, anyone can get it.
9. The myth: All HPV causes cancer.
The truth: High-risk strains of HPV can cause cancer, that's true, but lower-risk strains typically only cause genital warts.
10. The myth: If you get HPV, you can get treatment.
The truth: This one is tricky because if you get HPV, you can get treatment for the effects of the infection (like warts, cervical precancer, or other cancers), but you cannot treat the HPV itself.
11. The myth: If you get the HPV vaccine, you don't need to get pap smears anymore.
The truth: The HPV vaccine is a preventative measure but it's not 100 percent guaranteed to work. Pap smears are still recommended every three years for women ages 21 to 29 starting at age 21 and every 3 to 5 years for women ages 30 to 65 with few exceptions.
12. The myth: If you get HPV, it will keep coming back.
The truth: While it is possible that you will have chronic or recurrent HPV-positive testing and also exhibit effects of HPV, like warts or abnormal pap smears, most women with a good immune system will clear out their infections and the HPV will rest in a dormant inactive state. It's going to be OK!
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.