What do men know about HPV?
Watch and find out—and test your own knowledge.
HPV—human papillomavirus—is the most common sexually transmitted virus. It has been estimated that 80% or more of sexually active Americans will get HPV sometime in their lives. This means that anyone who has ever been sexually active has a high chance of being exposed to this virus. But only a small number of women, and even fewer men, infected with HPV will ever have any symptoms of disease. In almost all cases, the immune system will keep the virus under control or get rid of it completely.
There are different types of HPV. Some types can cause genital warts, which can appear as fleshy, painless, cauliflower-shaped skin growths. Warts are often small and hard to see, though, and can have different appearances: they might be smooth or rough, or large or small. There might be just one wart, or several. The HPV types that cause warts are known as “low risk” because they are almost never found with genital or anal cancers/
Other types of HPV, called “high-risk” types, can cause small cell changes of the penis and anus that the naked eye can’t see. These changes aren’t found very often, though, and penile and anal cancers are very rare.
Can HPV infections be treated?
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.
Can HPV infections be prevented?
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.
The best prevention is the HPV vaccine. It can prevent both high-risk and low-risk HPV and is recommended for boys and young men (along with girls and young women).
How are men tested for HPV?
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.
What about partners?
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.
Can a man be tested?
Research has shown that the HPV test may lead to inconsistent results with men. This is because it is difficult to get a good cell sample to test from the thick skin on the penis. Most people will not have visible symptoms if they are exposed to HPV. Therefore, for most, the virus is subclinical (invisible). This is especially true for males. If a male is exposed to the cell-changing types of HPV, he would be unlikely to have symptoms. If there are no symptoms for males, it is hard to test for it. Most of the time, men will not have any health risks such as cancer with the “high-risk” types of HPV. It is the female’s cervix that needs to be monitored.