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. So it’s important for men to understand how to reduce the risks of HPV infection.
It 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 United States will have HPV at some time in their life. Often, a man will clear the virus on his own, with no health problems.
What causes genital warts? Genital warts, like other non-STD warts, are caused by various types of the human papilloma virus (HPV) that infect the top layers of the skin. There are over 100 different types of HPV that may cause warts, but only a small number of strains can cause genital warts.
Those that do cause genital warts, unlike other wart-causing HPVs, are highly contagious and are passed on through sexual contact with a person who is infected. HPV types 6 and 11 cause the majority of genital warts.
It is estimated that over 60% of people who have sexual relations with a person who has genital warts will become infected and develop them too.
Generally, the genital warts will appear about three months after infection – however, in some cases there may be no symptoms for many years.
Risks of HPV Virus in Men
Some of the 30 or so 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. In those with a healthy immune system, they are even rarer.
About 1,530 men in the U.S. were diagnosed with cancer of the penis in 2006, according to American Cancer Society estimates. About 1,910 men got a diagnosis of 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.
Other types of HPV virus rarely cause cancer in men, but they do cause genital warts. At a given point in time, about 1% of sexually active men in the U.S. will have genital warts.
Male HPV: The Symptoms
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.
Diagnosing genital warts
Men – genital warts may exist on the penis, scrotum, urethra, upper thighs, on the anus, and inside the anus. (urethra = tube than urine passes through. scrotum = sac that holds the testicles)
If oral sex raises the risk of genital warts developing in the mouth or throat.
A patient needs to be examined by a health care professional – this could be a nurse – to confirm a diagnosis of genital warts. In the UK people can either go to their GP (general practitioner, primary care physician), a GUM (genitourinary medicine) clinic, or a sexual health clinic.
Tests for HPV Virus 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
There is no treatment for asymptomatic HPV infection. 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.
Anal cancer can be treated with radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. The specific treatments depend on the stage of cancer – how big the tumor is and how far the cancer has spread.
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.
The HPV types associated with cervical cancer usually do not cause health problems for a heterosexual man having sex with an HPV-infected woman.
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 Transmission of 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 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. But 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.