Often the conversation around HPV focuses on females, but HPV can also impact males.
We know the information available can be confusing. You may be wondering if HPV affects sexes differently? Why is the HPV vaccine now being recommended to all grade school children? Is there anything that can be done to help?
We have compiled some of the most common questions around HPV in males to clarify all that you need to know to tackle this common infection.
How does HPV affect people differently?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection worldwide. HPV includes a family of several viruses that reside in the skin and mucosal tissues in the human body. Some strains of HPV are harmless, causing warts on the hands and feet or genitals, while others are associated with more serious risks and may progress into cancer.
The strains of HPV that cause cancer often make home in tissue found in areas like the cervix, oral canal, anus, and vagina. Because HPV likes to attach to these tissues, there is a higher risk to individuals with female anatomy.
The higher risk of cervical cancer and other related symptoms put the spotlight of HPV prevention and treatment on those with female anatomy. The risk and symptoms of HPV in females explain why there is more information about best practices for HPV in females, but less information about how HPV impacts those with male anatomy.
With that said, there are more than 40 types of HPV, and males are susceptible to all of the same HPV strains that females are. That’s right – males are just as likely to get HPV as females, but with less severe potential complications.
All individuals, regardless of their sex, can contract, carry, and transmit HPV. More than half of sexually active males will contract a strain of HPV in their lifetime compared to 80 percent of sexually active females.
HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity involving the genital area. HPV is most commonly spread through vaginal and anal sex, but can also be spread through oral sex and hand contact. HPV is so common that any level of sexual activity, with one or just a few partners, can bring on an HPV infection. Your risk for contracting an HPV infection increases with an increased number of sexual partners.
Are you ready to respond to HPV?
Some groups of males are more likely to develop symptoms or complications of HPV than others. Gay and bisexual males are 17 times more likely to develop anal cancer than heterosexual individuals.
Males who have weakened immune systems, including those with HIV, autoimmune conditions, or medications, are also more likely to develop cancer or severe genital warts that are hard to treat.
Most HPV-positive males will never develop symptoms of HPV. However, a small subset of this population may have HPV develop into cancer. Most males with HPV, and especially those with a strong immune system, may never show symptoms of HPV, or develop health problems from it.
Certain types of HPV can cause genital warts, while other high-risk strains can develop into penile, anal, or oropharynx cancer (back of the throat, tongue, and tonsils). The following are more specific details of potential HPV complications in males:
- Genital warts: single or multiple warty growths in the genital area, including thighs, penis, testicles, and anus. These may appear days, weeks, or months after sexual contact with an HPV-positive sexual partner.
- Anal cancer: can present with no symptoms, or you may see anal pain, itching, discharge, or bleeding, swollen lymph nodes, or changes in stool.
- Penile cancer: early changes will include thickening of skin, changes in color, or tissue buildup. Later symptoms may show growths that can be painless, or painful, possibly with blood.
- Throat cancer: sore throat or ear pain that is not cleared with conventional medicine, coughing, pain with swallowing, unintentional weight loss, voice changes, or lumps.
Protecting Your Sexual Partner
Because males can be carriers of HPV, they can spread the virus through sexual contact. Limiting sexual partners, disclosing your sexual health history to your partner, and engaging in protected sex can all help prevent the spread of HPV.
High-risk strains transmitted through males to females can put women at risk of cervical dysplasia and progression of HPV into cancer. Cervical dysplasia and cervical cancers are a high-risk complication of HPV for women. So, even if you don’t show symptoms, you should be sure to take necessary precautions with your female sexual partners.
Maintaining a healthy and strong immune system through healthy diet and lifestyle factors can suppress the virus, reduce risks, and prevent transmission to more sexual partners.
HPV Frequently Asked Questions:
If my partner doesn’t have any symptoms, I am not at risk… right?
The short answer is: you could still be at risk.
Unfortunately, HPV can be passed on even when someone with an HPV infection does not have any symptoms.
A healthy immune system may suppress symptoms of the HPV infection, but the virus can still be transmitted to another individual. With that said, if their partner has an equally healthy immune system, the HPV will likely not cause any serious complications.
We use physical protection (i.e. condoms) every time, am I safe?
While condoms provide excellent protection against sexually transmitted infections, they only provide some protection against HPV.
Condoms do not cover the entire genital area, so you can still get the HPV virus through skin to skin contact in the genital area even if you’re wearing a condom. It can also be spread through skin-to-skin contact with other areas that aren’t covered.
You can get HPV through oral-genital or hand-genital contact – not just sexual intercourse! Having oral sex without physical protection can lead to throat cancer!
If I’ve been infected once, am I safe now?
You can be infected with HPV more than once, even if you’ve already been exposed to HPV before. Your body may not have developed long-term protection against the virus, or you may come into contact with a completely different strain of the virus as there are over 100 different types of HPV.
How do I know if I have HPV?
HPV detection is key to preventing further high-risk complications of HPV in women. Women should get routine pap smears and can get HPV tests to screen for cervical changes related to HPV.
HPV testing is the only way to know if you are HPV positive. The CDC does not recommend any testing to screen men for HPV given the high prevalence of HPV in the general population. There is no current test recommended for men with HPV, specific HPV testing would require out of pocket payment.
The best option is to continue to attend routine appointments with your medical doctor and make sure they are aware of any changes to your health, including your sexual health. Some health care providers will screen men at risk for anal cancer by performing an anal pap test.
Do males also need to get the HPV vaccine?
There are multiple FDA approved HPV vaccinations available to prevent diseases caused by HPV. Vaccinating young males against HPV may also prevent transmission and spread of the virus. It is recommended to get the vaccine before the age of 25. There are 2 or 3 vaccinations over a 6 to 12-month period to receive full immunization.
There are now school-based HPV vaccination programs offered to students of all sexes around grades 7 and 8, prior to the onset of sexual activity to optimize prevention strategies. It is also most optimal at this stage, as these vaccines are more effective with a young teen immune system.
Are you ready to respond to HPV?
How can I prevent transmission of HPV?
Aside from abstaining from sex, practicing safe sex measures is a way to prevent the transmission of HPV. During sexual activity, condoms are the best physical method of prevention, but they do not offer complete protection against HPV because there are still some exposed genital areas that may come into contact.
Being sexually monogamous with a monogamous partner is also a good way to prevent HPV infection.
You can also be proactive by staying aware of any abnormalities on your penis, scrotum, or around the anus. See your doctor for a checkup if you find warts, blisters, sores, ulcers, white patches, or other abnormal lesions.
What are common treatment options for HPV Complications?
There is no complete treatment for HPV in either sex. The complications associated with the human papillomavirus, however, may be managed and eradicated.
- Genital warts can be treated with creams, medication, or removed completely through surgery or by freezing them off. The latter will require a visit to your doctor, but other options can include home treatments.
- Cancers, such as penile, anal, or oropharyngeal cancer, can be managed and potentially treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and other adherence to recommended treatments by your doctor.
How can I avoid HPV?
HPV is very easily transmitted through sexual contact. Even being sexually active with only one person can transmit an HPV infection. Having more sexual partners will put you at higher risk for contracting an HPV infection.
How can I naturally support my immune system to protect against HPV?
Although there is no cure for HPV, there are ways to strengthen your immune system to prevent outbreaks and the progression of the virus. The team at Papillex suggests a few ways for men to help strengthen their immune system when concerned with HPV:
- Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, particularly broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, sweet potatoes, and carrots, all of which help to build a healthy immune system.
- There are natural supplements for HPV that have been used successfully by Naturopathic Doctors for decades. Be sure to either consume in therapeutic doses in your diet, or supplement with folic acid, selenium, green tea extract, and broccoli sprouts – all of which are key ingredients in Papillex.
- Get adequate sleep, anywhere from 7-8 hours a night, and exercise regularly.
- Try to incorporate wellness activities to help reduce stress; some methods include breath work, meditation and yoga.
The focus of HPV largely surrounds the female population, but males are also at risk of infection, transmission, and potential complications. However, cancers from HPV are much less prevalent in the male anatomy, which is why a heavier focus has been placed on people with female reproductive parts. Because transmission can occur in both males and females, vaccination in adolescents is now recommended in all sexes.
Given the high prevalence and transmissibility of the virus, maintaining health and a robust immune system through lifestyle factors and diet plays an important role in reducing complications of HPV in both sexes.
Government of Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada. “Institutional links.” Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Men: Questions and Answers – Sexual Health & STI – Public Health Agency of Canada. N.p., 07 June 2012. Accessed: 22 July 2017.