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Sex Health Blog

HPV and Men

Apr 06, 2011

Should men be concerned about HPV?

The short answer is yes.

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that affects both men and women. You might have heard a lot about how HPV can cause cervical cancer (and other types of cancer) in women. But HPV can be serious for men, too. Genital warts, anal and penile cancers, and head and neck cancers have all been linked to HPV.

Most people who have an HPV infection have no symptoms, so they don’t even know they’re infected – and that they’re passing it along to their partners.

Today, let’s take a closer look at these issues.

What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. It’s really a blanket term for over 100 viruses. More than 40 of them are transmitted through sexual contact, including skin-to-skin contact and vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

In most cases, HPV clears up on its own. But sometimes the infection is persistent and that’s when HPV becomes more serious. When that happens, it’s more likely to lead to genital warts or cancer.

Genital warts

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1% of sexually active men in the U.S. have genital warts.

Genital warts are often described as flesh-colored, cauliflower-shaped growths that appear on your penis, anus, scrotum, or surrounding areas. They may be flat or raised. They can appear singly or in clusters. Sometimes they’re so small you can’t even see them. They might itch, but they usually don’t hurt.

It usually takes between 6 weeks and 6 months for genital warts to appear after a person has been infected with HPV. But for some people, years go by between the time of infection and the time the warts appear.

Doctors treat genital warts with skin medications, laser therapy, or surgery. Warts might be cut off or frozen off.

If you have genital warts, it’s important to tell all of your sexual partners so they can see a doctor and have treatment, if necessary.

Anal cancer

The American Cancer Society estimated that 5,260 cases of anal cancer would be diagnosed in 2010 and that 720 men and women would die from it.

Anal cancer cells form in the anus, the end of the large intestine, where your stool passes.

Symptoms of anal cancer include itching, pain, and bleeding. You might also have a discharge from the anus, swollen lymph nodes, or changes in bowel habits and stool.

Sometimes there are no symptoms, but anal cancer can be detected through a rectal exam or anal Pap test.

Men who have sex with men are at higher risk for developing anal cancer.

Anal cancer is treated with surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. In some cases, a combination of treatments is used.

Penile cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 1,250 men were expected to be diagnosed with penile cancer in 2010. 310 men were expected to die from it.

HPV infection is found in about 50% of penile cancer cases. Often, symptoms of penile cancer don’t appear until the disease is already advanced. Cancer cells can be found anywhere on the penis, including the skin, blood vessels, smooth muscle, or connective tissue.

Common symptoms of penile cancer include lumps and sores on the penis, bleeding, and thickening skin or tissue buildup. Some men see changes in the color of their penis as well.

Penile cancer is relatively rare in North America and Europe, where less than 1% of men with cancer have penile cancer. In parts of Asia, Africa, and South America, that number jumps to almost 10%.

Like anal cancer, penile cancer is treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of those treatments.

Head and neck cancers

The CDC estimates that 5,700 men get HPV-related head and neck cancers each year. The oral cavity and oropharynx (the area that includes the soft palate, tonsils, and base of the tongue) are most commonly affected.

Some people get HPV infections in the mouth and throat, which are believed to originate through oral sex. And it seems that HPV-related head and neck cancers are on the rise, as oral sex has become more popular.

Some symptoms of head and neck cancers are hoarseness, coughing, ear and/or throat pain, problems breathing or swallowing, and lumps in the neck.

Chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery are used to treat head and neck cancers.

Reducing the risk

You might think that using a condom every time you have sex will prevent HPV transmission. It’s true that condoms reduce the risk, but HPV can still spread from skin-to-skin contact. The only way to prevent getting HPV is to abstain from sexual contact. You can lower your risk by having fewer sexual partners.

Keep in mind, too, that oral sex is not without risks.

Gardasil, a vaccine that protects against 4 types of HPV, is an option for boys and men between the ages of 9 and 26. The vaccine protects against new infections of those 4 particular types, but does not treat current infections. It’s most effective if given before a person’s first sexual experience – before he or she can become infected with HPV.

Overall, it’s important to take HPV seriously. The health consequences for you, your partner(s), and your future partners could be critical.