Sexual Health

HPV in Men: What Is It, What Does It Do, and How Can You Treat It?

Author:

Zoe Miller, BSc, MD, MBChB
on
June 5, 2024
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Take-home points
  • HPV is a family of viruses spread by skin-to-skin contact, especially during sexual activity.
  • Men with HPV infections will often have no symptoms and may not know they have the virus.
  • While high-risk HPV types rarely cause cancers of the penis, anus, and mouth/throat in men, in most cases, the body deals with the virus without any issues.
  • There’s no cure for the HPV virus itself, but treatments are available for the health conditions it can cause in men, such as genital warts and HPV-related cancers.
  • Vaccination programmes for young people and at-risk men are helping reduce the spread of the virus.

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a common sexually transmitted virus that can infect both men and women. Most of the time, the virus doesn't cause any symptoms, and you may not even know you have it. But HPV can increase the risk of developing other conditions, like genital warts and certain cancers.

In this article, we'll talk about what HPV is, how you get it, the symptoms it can cause, and how to treat it if you do become infected.

What is HPV?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a widespread virus affecting millions of people worldwide. In fact, as many as 1 in 3 men globally have genital HPV.1

HPV isn't just one virus, it's a large family of over 200 related viruses. It is thought around 40 types of these are spread through sexual contact and can infect the genital area.2  When our immune system has not cleared the virus, HPV can infect the body’s cells and can cause changes in how they grow, divide, and talk to each other. While in most cases, HPV infections will go away on their own overtime without causing any issues, in some cases, it may lead to further issues such as cancer.

HPV types are generally divided into two main categories:

  • Low-risk: A low risk of developing cancer.
  • High-risk: A higher risk of developing cancer.

The most common low-risk HPV types are HPV 6 and 11. These virus types can cause genital warts, but don’t significantly increase the risk of developing cancer. However, the high-risk HPV types, like HPV 16 and 18, are linked to several different types of cancer.3

Our immune system is often able to clear the infection naturally before any cancerous changes occur. But for a small percentage of people, high-risk HPV infection can lead to precancerous lesions. These require medical treatment to prevent progression to cancer.

This may sound scary, but it's important to emphasise that most HPV infections (even the high-risk types) don’t progress to cancer.3

How do you get HPV?

HPV is spread through sexual skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the virus. This means the virus can be spread even if a man doesn’t ejaculate, and even if a penis doesn't go inside the vagina, anus, or mouth.

If you have any kind of sexual contact - not just penetrative sex – it’s possible to catch HPV. Whilst it’s most commonly spread during anal or vaginal sex, 4 it’s also possible to catch HPV from oral sex or through sharing sex toys.

As HPV is spread through skin contact, the virus can even be passed on if you’re using condoms (although condoms do reduce the risk).

What does HPV do in men?

Most men and women infected with HPV don’t experience any symptoms. This means many men and women don’t know they have the virus but can still transmit it to their sexual partners. They may also be unaware they’re infected, which can lead to health issues later on.

High-risk HPV types are associated with an increased risk of certain types of cancer. In men, these strains can lead to cancers of the penis, anus, mouth, and throat. Read more about these different types of cancers here. Men are up to 4.5 times more likely to develop mouth and throat cancers, and HPV can increase this risk.5

Low-risk types of HPV can cause genital wart infection – most commonly types 6 and 11. Not everyone who catches these types will develop genital warts, but some men may notice small, flesh-coloured growths or bumps on their penis, anus, and around their genitals.  While these warts may cause some concern, they aren’t a serious health problem and often clear up on their own without treatment.

Symptoms of HPV in men

While most men may never develop symptoms, some may experience:

  • Flesh coloured growths or bumps on the penis, anus, or around genitalia.
  • Genital or common warts.

Learn more about genital warts including symptoms, causes and treatment here.

How to reduce the risk of catching HPV

There’s some stigma that HPV-related cancers only affect women. It’s true that cervical cancer, the most common cancer caused by HPV, doesn’t affect men.6  But whilst other HPV-related cancers are less common, they’re still a serious issue. In 2019 alone, 70,000 men around the world developed cancers related to HPV.7 Men with weakened immune systems or those who engage in high-risk sexual behaviours are even more at risk.

Remember, many HPV infections resolve on their own without causing any issues, and catching a high-risk strain doesn’t mean that you’ll get cancer. By using condoms, limiting the number of sexual partners you have, and getting vaccinated, you can reduce your risk of catching HPV. There are also some treatments available if you’re experiencing HPV-related symptoms.

Treating HPV in men

While there’s no cure for the HPV virus itself, there are various treatments for the health conditions that HPV can cause. There’s currently no routine HPV test for men, so it’s important to be aware of the symptoms it can cause (see above; although, often, it doesn’t cause any symptoms).

Genital warts are one of the most common symptoms of HPV, which can be treated with topical medications applied directly to the warts, or through procedures to physically remove them. Even with treatment, it’s not possible to get rid of the virus in all the cells of the body, so the warts may return. In some cases, genital warts go away on their own without any treatment, but it’s important to seek medical help if you’re worried and to avoid passing the virus on when you’re most contagious.

As no HPV screening test is available, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of HPV-related cancers, and the changes that happen before this point. Generally speaking, bleeding, lumps, bumps, weight loss, and changes in your toilet habits are all things to look out for. More information on the specific signs of each cancer can be found on the NHS website.

Typical treatments for HPV-caused cancers include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, depending on the specific type and stage of the cancer. Catching things early increases the chances of successful treatment.

The HPV vaccination

Luckily, thanks to vaccination schemes, HPV-related cancer rates are dropping. In the UK, the HPV vaccine is recommended for boys and girls ages 12–13 years old. Men who have sex with men and other high-risk man are also advised to get the vaccination.8  

The vaccine works by stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies that can neutralise HPV infection. HPV vaccination can’t treat existing HPV infections, but it’s an essential tool for preventing future HPV-related health problems, especially when given before someone becomes sexually active. The HPV vaccine is now given to boys and girls aged 12-13 years old. If you’re under 25 or at high-risk of catching HPV, you may still be able to get vaccinated on the NHS - ask your healthcare professional for advice. You can also pay privately for an HPV vaccine.

HPV is a common sexually transmitted virus, which can increase the risk of cancer in some cases. This might sound worrying, but 90% of the time the body controls the infection with no further issues.6 Although it’s easily spread through skin-to-skin contact, vaccination programmes are also helping to reduce transmission of the virus. Certain strains of HPV can lead to genital warts or, more rarely, cancers, but there are treatments available to help.

Speak to a healthcare professional

If you’re worried you have may contracted HPV, or are concerned about any symptoms you’re experiencing, speak with your healthcare professional.

References
  1. Bruni L, Albero G, Rowley J, Alemany L, Arbyn M, Giuliano AR, et al. Global and regional estimates of genital human papillomavirus prevalence among men: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Global Health [Internet]. 2023 Sep 1;11(9):e1345–62.
  2. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Factsheet about human papillomavirus [Internet].
  3. UK Health Security Agency. Human papillomavirus (HPV): the green book, chapter 18a. 2023.
  4. CDC. STD Facts - Human Papillomavirus (HPV) [Internet]. www.cdc.gov. 2020.
  5. Vogel L. HPV not just a young woman’s problem. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 2017 Mar 12;189(10):E416–7.
  6. World Health Organization. Human papillomavirus and cancer [Internet]. www.who.int. 2023.
  7. Martel, C, et al. Lancet 2020;8(2):E180–E190. 
  8. NHS. HPV Vaccine. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/vaccinations/hpv-vaccine.

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