We’ve come a long way in cancer awareness over the past half century. Most of us now know that cancer is not contagious, right? Correct. But, in fact, you can acquire a common virus, the Human Papilloma Virus, which increases your chance to develop certain cancers. Today, we will debunk some common myths about how HPV is transmitted.

Cancer caused by a virus? Yes.

It’s called the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), and it’s not a rare virus. In fact, the majority of sexually active adults will get HPV at some point in their lives. Most will eventually clear the virus on their own and will not develop cancer. But many will go on to develop an HPV-associated cancer or HPV-related warts.

But HPV only causes cancer in women, right? Wrong.

HPV is best known as the cause of most cervical cancers. It is also associated with other female cancers, such as cancers of the vulva and vagina, but HPV doesn’t just affect females. Both men and women are at risk for HPV-related cancers of the mouth, throat, tonsils, and tongue, which can be transmitted through oral sex. Men can also develop HPV-related cancer of the penis. And remember, you generally can’t see who has HPV, and many people who have HPV don’t know it.

Wait. You’re only at risk for HPV if you’re promiscuous, right? Wrong.

You can get HPV by having sexual contact with just one person. In fact, you can get HPV as a virgin. Even without having sexual intercourse, you can acquire HPV through skin-to-skin contact of genitalia, giving or receiving oral sex, sharing sex toys, and through anal and vaginal sex.

But I always use condoms during sex, so I’m protected from getting HPV? Unfortunately, no.

Condoms do not completely prevent HPV transmission. The proper use of latex condoms decreases the risk of acquiring HPV, but due to skin-to-skin contact of areas not covered by the condom, you can still get HPV and other sexually transmitted conditions.

What can I do to decrease my chance of getting HPV?

Get vaccinated. The HPV vaccine has been well tested by the FDA and CDC and its goal is cancer prevention. The HPV vaccine is recommended for routine vaccination at age 11 or 12 years for both boys and girls. The CDC also recommends vaccination for everyone through age 26 years if not adequately vaccinated previously. Even some adults ages 27 through 45 years may decide to get the HPV vaccine based on discussion with their doctor.

Screening is not an alternative to HPV vaccination. Pap tests do not always detect cervical disease before cancer develops, and there are no routine screening tests for many of the cancers caused by HPV infection. Since HPV vaccination has been recommended, rates of HPV infections and associated cancers have dropped significantly.