HPV is a virus that is very common. In fact, most men and women are infected with HPV at some time in their lives. There are approximately 100 types of HPV. Some HPV types infect the genital area and may cause warts (“low-risk” HPV), while others may cause abnormal cell changes in men of the anus or penis (“high-risk” HPV) - these types are also linked with abnormal cervical cell changes in women.
The types of HPV found in the genital areas are usually passed on during sexual contact (sexually transmitted). HPV types that cause warts on the hands or feet do not cause genital warts or cervical cell changes, nor do genital HPV types generally spread outside the genital area.
Genital HPV is usually acquired by direct skin-to-skin contact during intimate sexual contact with someone who is infected. Most men and women are not aware that they have the virus. Condoms do not offer complete protection from HPV. Increasing numbers of partners increases the risk of getting HPV, but the virus is so common that having only a single lifetime partner does not assure protection. It is usually impossible to determine when or from whom HPV was caught. HPV may be detected fairly soon after exposure, or may not be found until many years later. For all these reasons, it is not helpful, nor fair, to blame your partner.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus. It has been estimated that 75% or more of sexually active Americans will contract HPV sometime in their lives. This means that anyone who has ever had sexual relations has a high chance of being exposed to this virus, but only a small number of women, and even fewer men, infected with HPV develop lesions that are detected or need to be treated. In almost all cases, the immune system will keep the virus under control or get rid of it completely.
Keep in mind it is rare for “high-risk” HPV to lead to cancer. In 2010, for example, the American Cancer Society estimates only about 2,000 cases of anal cancer will occur with men and that penile cancer will account for approximately 0.2% of all cancers in males.
There is currently no treatment available for the virus itself. However, good treatments do exist for the diseases HPV can cause, such as cell changes or genital warts. Your health care provider will discuss these treatment options with you, if you need them.
Not having sex is the only way to prevent HPV. Since HPV is so common, even those who have only had one partner can still get the virus. Using condoms correctly each time you have sex reduces the risk of getting sexually transmitted infections, and might offer some protection against HPV. Keep in mind that skin in the anal/genital area not covered by a condom can still be affected.
There is also one vaccine, Gardasil®, that prevents genital warts that is available for boys and young men ages 9-26. More vaccines may be available in the future.
Men are typically screened clinically with a visual inspection to check for lesions (such as warts) – there is no specific way to test directly for HPV in men that is approved for clinical use. Researchers are looking at ways to better screen men, but the current lack of testing options for males can be very frustrating.
While still not routinely done, anyone with a history of receptive anal sex may want to speak with his or her health care provider about having an anal Pap test. Anal cancer is uncommon, but screening can still be an important precaution – talk to your provider if you have questions.
Most sexually active couples share HPV until the immune response suppresses the infection. Partners who are sexually intimate only with each other are not likely to pass the same virus back and forth. When HPV infection goes away the immune system will remember that HPV type and keep a new infection of the same HPV type from occurring again. However, because there are many different types of HPV, becoming immune to one HPV type may not protect you from getting HPV again if exposed to another HPV type.