Cancer Women's health

3 things you might not know about HPV

Women in pink smiling

Online, at school, at the doctor’s office- information about Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is everywhere, but there may be a few things you don’t know about it. We talked to Dr. Nancy Durand, gynecologist at Sunnybrook. Here are three things she wants you to know about HPV:

1) HPV causes cancer in men, too

When Michael Douglas candidly revealed his oral cancer was caused by HPV earlier this year, many people expressed surprise.

Even though HPV has traditionally been thought of as a disease that affects women and mainly causes cervical cancer, men are actually at higher risk of being diagnosed with certain types of HPV-positive cancers than women.

“It’s not well understood why men are at higher risk for HPV-positive oral cancer, but it does point out that vaccination in men is even more important than we may have previously thought,” says Dr. Durand. Physicians are learning more and more that HPV can also cause other cancers in both women and men, such as anal cancers and head & neck cancers (cancers of the base of the tongue, tonsils and soft palate).

2) Not all HPV infections lead to cancer

You’ve probably read some of the (slightly scary) statistics about HPV: 3 in 4 Canadians will get HPV in their lifetime. It can lead to a variety of cancers and cause genital warts, and there is no cure. But should this keep you up at night, worrying about the potentially deadly consequences of HPV?

Hardly, says Dr. Durand. “Most people who are infected with this virus will clear it- probably 80% of people. It’s the other 20% of people with a persistent infection who may be at risk of cancer, and it’s still only a very small percentage of those people who may go on to develop cancer,” she says.

Many people never even realize they’ve had an HPV infection, as there are usually no symptoms, and the infection often goes away on its own.

3) You’re never too old to get the HPV vaccine

What if you didn’t get the HPV vaccine back in middle school, and now you think it’s too late to get it?

“Regardless of your age and your onset of sexual activity, we can vaccinate both men and women, and we can see a reduction in disease,” says Dr. Durand.It’s actually not too late- the vaccine can still be effective, even in adults who’ve already been sexually active. “Many people think vaccination can only be done before the onset of sexual activity. But regardless of your age and your onset of sexual activity, we can vaccinate both men and women, and we can see a reduction in disease,” says Dr. Durand.

Anyone, male or female, over the age of 9 can be vaccinated. So, if you’ve put off getting the vaccine because you thought you were too old, it’s not too late!

About the author

Sybil Millar

Sybil Millar

Sybil Millar is the Communications Advisor for the Ross Tilley Burn Centre, Critical Care and Infectious Diseases programs at Sunnybrook.

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