Human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection. It can lead to cancer.
Most information about human papillomavirus (HPV) focuses on women because certain types of the virus can cause cervical cancer. However, HPV can also cause health problems in men.
What is HPV?
HPV poses a risk for men as well as women.
HPV is a group of over 100 viruses. The viruses affect the skin and moist membranes that line the body. Although most men who get HPV do not show any symptoms, they may go on to develop growths or warts.
These may appear on the:
- Groin and thighs
- Back of the throat
Different types of HPV affect different areas of the body. HPV types 6 and 11 cause more than 90 percent of genital warts in men and women. HPV types 16 and 18 cause most HPV-related cancers.
How can men get HPV?
Men can get HPV in the same way as women, through direct, intimate contact, including sexual contact. HPV can be spread from one person to another through oral, anal, or vaginal sex, or intimate skin-to-skin contact.
If a person has HPV, the virus can be spread, even when there have never been visible symptoms.
The chance of contracting HPV is increased by:
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Age, occurring more in adolescence or young adulthood
- Weakened immune system due to organ transplant, HIV, or other conditions that weaken the immune system
- Being uncircumcised
- Damaged skin
It is important to consult a doctor if warts of any kind appear on the genitals, or if there are warts that cause discomfort or pain.
Complications of HPV in men
HPV normally goes away by itself within 2 years. In fact, 90 percent of HPV infections will go away with the help of the body’s natural immune system without causing any harm.
Some types of HPV can cause cancer.
However, while some types of HPV can cause genital warts, other types can cause cancers.
Around 38,793 HPV-related cancers occur in the United States each year. Around 23,000 of those cases are among women and about 15,793 among men.
In men, HPV is thought to be responsible for:
- Over 90 percent of cases of anal cancer, which affect 1,500 men each year, come from HPV.
- HPV is responsible for over 60 percent of penile cancers, and it affects around 400 men each year.
- Oropharyngeal cancer, which occurs in the back of the throat, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils. It affects around 3,920 men a year, and about 70 percent of cases are due to HPV.
Compared with men who have sex with women only, men who have sex with men are 17 times more likely to develop HPV-related anal cancer.
Men who have a weakened immune system due to HIV or other reasons have a higher chance of developing HPV-related anal cancer. Men with HIV tend to have more severe genital warts that are harder to treat.
Symptoms of HPV and HPV-related cancer
There is currently routine screening to diagnose HPV in men. However, a doctor might be able to diagnose HPV infection by examining any warts that have appeared. If a man is considered high risk, a doctor may also swab the anal region for HPV.
A constant sore throat and cough can be a sign of throat cancer.
The warts can be small or large, flat or raised, or cauliflower-shaped and appear as a bump or group of bumps in the area surrounding the penis, anus, or genitals. The warts usually do not hurt but can be unsightly.
An HPV infection is not cancer, but the infection can cause changes in the body that may lead to cancer. Cancer may not be diagnosed for years after a person is infected with HPV because the infection develops very slowly.
Some of the symptoms of HPV-related cancers to look out for are:
- Bleeding, discharge, pain, or itching of the anus
- Swelling in the anal or groin area
- Changes to bowel habits or the shape of stools
- Tissue changes on the penis such as color, skin thickening, or tissue buildup
- Painful or painless sores or growths on the penis that might bleed
Cancer of the back of the throat:
- Constant sore throat or ear pain
- Persistent coughing
- Trouble breathing or swallowing
- Weight loss
- Voice changes or hoarseness
- Lumps or growths in the neck
There is no way to tell who will have a temporary HPV infection and who will go on to develop cancer.
Treatment for HPV
There are no treatments for HPV, but there are treatments for the conditions caused by the infection.
A doctor can treat genital warts with prescription medication. They can also be surgically removed or frozen or burned off, depending on the size, location, and shape. Getting rid of the warts may not prevent the infection from being passed on to a sexual partner.
If genital warts are not treated, they are unlikely to turn into cancer. They will go away, grow, multiply, or stay the same.
Anal, penile, or throat cancers are usually treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
Which men should get the HPV vaccine?
Getting vaccinated and using condoms correctly when having sex can lower the risk of getting HPV. Condoms cannot provide full protection against HPV because HPV infects some areas that are not covered by a condom.
Though there is no treatment for HPV, there are three effective HPV vaccines available to prevent HPV. All three vaccines prevent infection with HPV types 16 and 18, which are the two types most linked to cancer. One of the vaccines also prevents infection with HPV types 6 and 11, which are most linked to genital warts.
The three-dose HPV vaccine series is routinely recommended for boys age 11-12 years. Some groups of men are also advised to have the vaccine if they did not have the full three doses in childhood.
- Any males through age 21 years
- Men through age 26 years who have sex with men
- Men with a weakened immune system or HIV through age 26 years
Since HPV vaccination commenced in the U.S., the number of women affected by the four main HPV types has dropped from 11.5 percent to 4.3 percent among females aged 14 to 19 years and from 18.5 percent to 12.1 percent among females aged 20 to 24 years.
The HPV vaccine is safe and effective. No serious side effects have been reported from the vaccine. The HPV vaccine does not prevent other sexually transmitted infections or treat people who have existing HPV infections or HPV-related diseases.
Living with HPV
Viruses are difficult to treat. The body gets rid of viruses by developing immunity to them, which may take months or even years. A person could potentially have HPV for many years before it is diagnosed or causes any health issues.
There is no way to find out which person in the relationship gave the infection to the other person.
If a person has genital warts, they should avoid sex until the warts are removed or have gone away. However, it is currently unknown how long after genital warts have disappeared that a person can spread HPV infection. Wearing a barrier contraceptive, such as a condom can help prevent spread.
Although HPV is common and most sexually active adults will have HPV at some point in their lifetime, the health problems that are caused by HPV and HPV-related cancers are overall less common.