Understanding HPV

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most widespread sexually transmitted infection in the United States. More than half of all sexually active men and women have HPV at some point in their lives.

Almost 80 million Americans are infected with the virus. About 14 million new cases are added each year.

What are the symptoms of HPV?

More than 150 different types of HPV exist. Approximately 30 of these types are related to genital HPV infections. Each HPV type is numbered and categorized as either a high-risk or low-risk HPV.

Low-risk HPVs can cause warts. They generally produce little to no symptoms. They tend to resolve on their own without any long-term effects.

High-risk HPVs can cause cancer. They’re more aggressive forms of the virus that require medical treatment. Sometimes, they can also cause cell changes in the penis and anus. Although penile and anal cancers are rare, they’re still possible.

Most men with HPV never experience symptoms or realize that they have the infection. If you have an infection that won't go away, you may begin to notice genital warts on your:

  • penis
  • scrotum
  • anus

Warts may also occur on the back of your throat. If you notice any abnormal skin changes in these areas, see a doctor immediately for further evaluation.

What causes HPV in men?

Both men and women can contract HPV from having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an infected partner. Most people infected with HPV unknowingly pass it on to their partner because they’re unaware of their own HPV status.

Risk factors for HPV in men

Although HPV is common in both men and women, health problems resulting from HPV are less common in men. Three male subpopulations are at an increased risk for developing HPV-related health problems. This includes:

  • uncircumcised men
  • men with weak immune systems due to HIV or organ transplant
  • men who engage in anal sex or sexual activity with other men

It’s important to understand the cancer-causing properties of HPV in both men and women. Based on data from 2009 to 2013, approximately 39,800 HPV-related cancers occurred in the United States each year. Of those cancers, over 23,000 occurred in women and about 16,500 occurred in men.

The primary cancers caused by HPV are:

  • cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancer in women
  • penile cancer in men
  • throat and anal cancer in men and women

Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-related cancer in women. Throat cancer is the most common HPV-related cancer in men.

How’s HPV in men diagnosed?

Due to the high correlation between cervical cancer and HPV, much effort has gone into creating tools to diagnose HPV in women. Currently, there are no approved tests to detect HPV in men.

It’s important that you take notice of any HPV-related symptoms and report them to your doctor. You should see your doctor immediately if you notice any abnormal skin growths or changes in your penile, scrotal, anal, or throat areas. These may be early signs of cancerous growths.

If you think you’re at risk for HPV but aren’t experiencing symptoms, it’s still important to get tested. Some people carry and possibly spread the virus for years without ever knowing.

Treating HPV in men

There’s currently no cure for HPV. However, most health problems that are caused by HPV are treatable. If you develop genital warts, your doctor will use a variety of topical and oral medications to treat the condition.

HPV-related cancers are also treatable, especially when diagnosed at an early stage. A doctor who specializes in cancer treatment can assess the cancer and provide an appropriate treatment plan. Early intervention is key, so you should see a doctor immediately if you’re experiencing any unusual symptoms.

How to reduce your HPV risk

The top way you can protect yourself against HPV is to get vaccinated. Although it’s recommended that you get vaccinated around age 12, you can still get vaccinated up until age 26. You can also protect yourself by:

  • limiting your number of sexual partners
  • using condoms correctly and consistently
  • avoiding sexual contact with a partner if genital warts are present