HPV In Men: Genital Warts Aren’t the Only Issue

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You’ve likely heard about HPV (human papillomavirus) and how it can cause cervical cancer in women. But guess what? Men are also susceptible to HPV infection and the ill effects it can unleash.

As the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, nearly all sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their lives if they don’t get the HPV vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

HPV is transmitted through vaginal intercourse, anal and oral sex, and other close skin-to-skin contact. Condoms can reduce the risk of infection, but you can still get HPV from contact with a partner’s skin during sexual activity.

Silent Symptoms

More than 100 types of HPV lurk around every corner, 40 of which can infect genital areas, the rectum/anus, and lining of the mouth and throat.

Although most HPV infections go away on their own without causing problems — thanks to the body’s immune system — certain HPV strains can linger silently for years and lead to genital warts or cancer in both men and women.

“Most of time, you don’t know you’ve had the infection, and you don’t know you’re giving it to your sexual partner,” explains Melinda Ruff, MD.

Higher-risk HPV strains that cause cancer do not produce symptoms, but if cancer develops, the cancer may trigger symptoms. Also, precancerous lesions may cause symptoms like skin ulcers.

HPV Cancers In Men

HPV itself isn’t cancer, but when a high-risk HPV strain causes an infection that persists for many years, it can lead to cell changes that, if untreated, may get worse over time and become cancer.

Besides causing cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers in women, HPV infection can lead to penile cancer in men, and anal and oral cancers in both men and women. The Gardasil®9 HPV vaccine prevents infection from the HPV types that cause over 90 percent of these HPV cancers, as well as genital warts, when given at the recommended ages.

HPV is thought to be responsible for more than 60 percent of penile cancers, according to the CDC. Recent studies show that about 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers (a type of oral cancer) may also be linked to HPV.

Preteen HPV Vaccine Provides Lifetime Protection

The best time to get the HPV vaccine is before becoming sexually active to ensure protection against harmful HPV strains. The vaccine is not effective against existing HPV infection.

The CDC recommends HPV vaccination for males and females 11 or 12 years old (and as early as age 9) to ensure they’re protected before virus exposure. It’s also recommended up to age 26 for people who didn't get the vaccine when they were younger.

“We all have to realize that at some point the gross majority of all people will be sexually active with someone,” notes Dr. Ruff. “Preparing for that possible exposure before it happens makes the most sense.”

The HPV vaccine is long lasting and has no known serious side effects. At this time, there is no evidence that protection decreases over time. This HPV vaccine decision tool may be helpful if you’re evaluating the vaccine for your son.

Adults Can Still Get HPV Vaccine

The HPV vaccine recently was approved for adults 27 to 45. If you’re in this age range, you may want to discuss the vaccine and your unique sexual history with your health care provider. This HPV vaccine decision tool, targeted to adults, may also be helpful.

“It’s the number of partners that increases your risk rather than age,” Dr. Ruff says, noting that there’s no way to know the HPV types a person has been exposed to. The vaccine can add an extra layer of protection if you’ve not yet been exposed to the higher-risk HPV strains.

Another reason to get vaccinated? Relationships. The virus can remain dormant for years. This means it can cause relationship problems if a partner is diagnosed with an HPV infection from a long-ago relationship, Dr. Ruff points out.

Ultimately, the best reason to get vaccinated is to limit the spread of HPV.

“If you can’t get HPV, you can’t pass it on,” Dr. Ruff notes.

Talk to your health care provider if you have questions about anything new or unusual. For men, this would include warts or unusual growths, lumps, or sores on your penis, scrotum, anus, mouth, or throat.

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Melinda L. Ruff, MD

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