General Health Sex Teenagers Tweens

HPV Misconceptions: Facts, Fiction and What to Discuss With Your Teen

“Hey kids, let’s talk about HPV!” 

It’s probably not the most riveting dinner conversation. But it needs to be done. And it should be done before your teen becomes sexually active.

As parents, it’s our job to teach our kids about sexual health, even if it involves several attempts to change the subject and repeated eye rolls. From your teen, of course.

They probably won’t be too keen to have the chat. But they need us to talk to them about it. Kids see parents as a trusted source of information – even if they will NEVER admit it. It’s important for parents to understand HPV and to know where to go for more information. Then we can adequately educate our teens.

mum and tween daughter

Before you bring HPV up at the dinner table, have a read of our guide to HPV below.  It’s a quick read and it will give you all the answers you need to prepare for the conversation for your son or daughter.

What is the HPV virus anyway?

First things first, what actually is HPV?

HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus, an incredibly common sexually transmitted virus.  Up to 90% of people will be infected with at least one genital type of HPV at some time in their lives.1 Yes, 90%. There is no cure, but there are preventative measures including safe sex, cervical screening, and vaccination.

HPV misconceptions

Misconception #1: It’s a virus that will go away in time 

When we hear the word ‘virus’, we assume it’s like the common cold or flu. You get it, you get symptoms, then you slowly get better.

But this isn’t quite the case with HPV. Yes, it’s a virus, and yes your immune system will usually get rid of it before any symptoms appear, but when that doesn’t happen the virus can persist in your body. Kind of like a volcano, the HPV virus can remain ‘dormant’ for years and years, not showcasing any symptoms. Then one day it blows.


Misconception #2: HPV is only really a concern for women

Sorry boys, but both men and women can be affected by HPV. HPV symptoms in men can include genital warts on the penis, on the scrotum, in or around the anus or on the groin and HPV can even cause anal cancer.

However, often HPV causes no symptoms so diagnosing HPV in men is tricky. After all, men do not receive cervical screenings which is one of the best ways to determine if the cells have been impacted by HPV.

teenage boy with mum


Misconception #3:  HPV is harmless and has no symptoms

For many people, this is true. But not always. Sometimes the virus will persist and lead to diseases of the genital area. The HPV virus in women is considered responsible for 99.7% of cervical cancer² and can lead to other cancers as well, including anal cancer (just as in men) and cancers of the vagina and vulva.

The thing about HPV is that you never know if it’s going to be harmless or harmful which is why it’s so critical for teens to understand what it is and why prevention is important.


Misconception #4: HPV is only a concern for people who have lots of sexual partners

Sorry kids, but if you have ANY sexual contact, you’re at risk. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your first time or your  15th. Studies show that the risk of HPV infection is high in the years immediately following a person’s first sexual encounter and increases with each partner and year of sexual activity³.

So, yes, HPV is a concern if you are very sexually active, but it’s also a concern if you’re new to the ball game.


Misconception #5: You must have sex to get the HPV virus 

Yes, you can get HPV by having sex. But that’s not the only way. Anyone who has had any kind of sexual activity involving genital contact could get genital HPV. Hands, mouths, anus, you get the drift.  Hopefully, your teen will too without both of you turning a bright tomato red.

HPV virus facts and fiction


Misconception #6: Condoms will be enough to prevent an HPV infection

Condoms are every sexually active teen’s BFF. Always use them. ALWAYS. Condoms can greatly reduce the risk of genital HPV and also provide protection against other sexually transmitted diseases (and, of course, teen pregnancy).

But remember point #5 above – it’s not just about standard hetero sex. Safe sex with condoms can help. But it may only be 40% effective in preventing genital warts in women because HPV is transmitted through genital skin contact, not just sexual intercourse . There are other forms of prevention including vaccination and cervical screening (after the age of 25) that are important too.

Australia has led the way in gender-neutral public health programmes to prevent HPV related diseases and cancers as the HPV vaccination administered before becoming sexually active (a 2-dose program funded by the Government and given at school), may play a role in reducing transmission.  In a similar way, the best time to indulge in the whole HPV chat is also before your teen becomes sexually active. 

Condoms are every sexually active teen’s BFF. Always use them. ALWAYS. Condoms can greatly reduce the risk of genital HPV and also provide protection against other sexually transmitted diseases (and, of course, teen pregnancy).

But remember point #5 above – it’s not just about standard hetro sex. Safe sex with condoms can help. But it may only be 40% effective in preventing genital warts in women because HPV is transmitted through genital skin contact, not just sexual intercourse 4 . There are other forms of prevention including vaccination and cervical screening (after the age of 25) that are important too.

Australia has led the way in gender-neutral public health programmes to prevent HPV related diseases and cancers. The HPV vaccination administered before becoming sexually active, may play a role in reducing transmission.

Experts predict cervical cancer could be eliminated in Australia within the next decade if current HPV prevention strategies such as vaccination of boys and girls, cervical screening and treatment are maintained. This is amazing news as cervical cancer can be absolutely devastating.

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You need to have all the facts to prevent HPV in a sexual relationship. Photo: Big Stock

Misconception #7: You don’t need cervical screening anymore if you’ve taken preventative measures

You’ve had the vaccination, you’re practicing safe sex, all good, right? No. Women over the age of 25 still need to have regular cervical screenings. 

Although your teen will be too young for cervical screening testing, it’s a good idea to mention it to them anyway so they are prepared for it when they turn 25. After all, as we all know, cervical screening (they used to be called Pap smears) can be a bit…invasive.  And women under 25 should see a doctor for screening if they have any unusual symptoms such as post-coital bleeding or mid-cycle bleeding.

Where to get more info

HPV information wasn’t something that we were taught growing up so navigating this chat with our teens can be a bit tricky. We hope the above information cleared up some common misconceptions and will help you when it’s time to talk to your teen.

Remember, try to choose a time BEFORE they start doing the deed (or anything close to the deed) and remind them just how important vaccination, practicing safe sex, and cervical screenings are. This five-minute conversation will set them up for a lifetime of HPV knowledge and awareness. Be open. Be honest and be prepared.

For more information on HPV and how to talk to your kids about it, visit the Understanding HPV site below.

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This post is sponsored by Seqirus (Australia) Pty Ltd – ABN 66 120 398 067, 63 Poplar Road, Parkville VIC 3052. SeqirusTM is a registered trademark of Seqirus UK Limited or its affiliates. Prepared: November 2019. SEQ/GAR9/0919/XXXX.

Sources:

  1. Chesson HW et al. Sex Transm Dis 2014;41(11):660-4.
    2. Walboomers JM et al. J Pathol. 1999;189(1):12-9.
    3. Winer R.L et al. JID 2008;197(2):279-82. 3. Walboomers JM et al. J Pathol. 1999;189(1):12-9.
    4. Mahart LE et al. Sex Trans Dis 2002;29(11):725-35.
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