Much of the information about HPV virus (human papillomavirus) centers on women, since having the virus increases their risk of getting cervical cancer. But HPV virus in men can cause health problems, too. It's important for men to understand how to reduce the risks of HPV infection.
HPV infection can increase a man's risk of getting genital cancers, although these cancers are not common. HPV can also cause genital warts in men, just as in women.
More than half of men who are sexually active in the U.S. will have HPV at some time in their life. Often, a man will clear the virus on his own, with no health problems.
Risks of HPV Infection in Men
Some of the types of HPV associated with genital cancers can lead to cancer of the anus or penis in men. Both of these cancer types are rare, especially in men with a healthy immune system. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates about 2,120 men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer of the penis in 2017, and about 2,950 men will be diagnosed with anal cancer.
The risk of anal cancer is about 17 times higher in sexually active gay and bisexual men than in men who have sex only with women. Men who have HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) are also at higher risk of getting this cancer.
Most cancers that are found in the back of the throat, including at the base of the tongue and in the tonsils, are HPV related. In fact, these are the most common HPV-related cancers found in men. More than 13,000 new cases are diagnosed in men each year.
Other types of HPV virus rarely cause cancer in men, but they do cause genital warts. At any given point in time, about 1% of sexually active men in the U.S. will have genital warts.
The Symptoms of HPV in Men
The types of high-risk HPV that can cause cancer rarely present any symptoms in men or in women. Genital warts are the first symptom you may see with low-risk HPV strains that cause warts but not cancer.
Tests for HPV Infection in Men
To diagnose genital warts in men, the doctor will visually check a man's genital area to see if warts are present. Some doctors will apply a vinegar solution to help identify warts that aren't raised and visible. But the test is not foolproof. Sometimes normal skin is mistakenly identified as a wart.
There is no routine test for men to check for high-risk HPV strains that can cause cancer. However, some doctors are urging anal Pap tests for gay and bisexual men, who are at higher risk of anal cancer caused by HPV. In an anal Pap test, the doctor collects cells from the anus, and then has them checked for abnormalities in a lab.
Treatments for HPV Infection in Men
There is no treatment for HPV infection in men when no symptoms are present. Instead, doctors treat the health problems that are caused by the HPV virus.
When genital warts appear, a variety of treatments can be used. The patient can apply prescription creams at home. Or a doctor can surgically remove or freeze off the warts.
Early treatment of warts is discouraged by some doctors because genital warts can go away on their own. It can also take time for all warts to appear. So a person who treats warts as soon as they appear may need another treatment later on.
HPV Vaccine for Men?
The HPV vaccine Gardasil, approved for use in females in 2006, was approved for males in 2009. Gardasil is approved for boys and men ages 9 to 26 for the prevention of genital warts caused by two HPV strains: HPV 6 and HPV 11. Those are two of the four HPV strains that Gardasil targets. In late 2010, Gardasil was also approved for the prevention of anal cancer.
More recently, the FDA approved Gardasil 9. It prevents infection by the same HPV types as Gardasil plus HPV-31, HPV-33, HPV-45, HPV-52, and HPV-58. Collectively, these types are implicated in 90% of cervical cancers. Gardasil 9 is approved for use in males ages 9 to 15.
How to Manage HPV in a Relationship
If a man's long-term sexual partner has HPV, chances are good HPV transmission has already occurred and he also has it. HPV in men may clear from the body more easily than in women. Women, in general, often clear the virus in two years or less.
If a partner has HPV, it does not necessarily mean they have had sex with someone else recently. The virus can lay dormant in the body for years without causing noticeable symptoms.
How to Prevent Spreading HPV
Abstinence is the only sure way to prevent HPV transmission. Risk of transmission can be lowered if a person has sex only with one person who is not infected and who is also monogamous.
To lower the risk of HPV transmission, men can also limit the number of sex partners and pick partners who have had few or no partners in the past.
Condoms can provide some protection against HPV transmission. Unfortunately, they aren't 100% effective, since HPV is transmitted primarily by skin-to-skin contact. The virus can still infect the skin uncovered by the condom.
In a recent study of young women who had just become sexually active, those whose partners used a condom each time they had sex were 70% less likely to get an HPV infection than were women whose partners used a condom less than 5% of the time.