The Truth about HPV in Men
For the past several years, public health officials have been advocating the benefits of Gardasil in women, a vaccine designed to protect against the four strains of HPV (human papillomavirus) known to cause cervical cancer and genital warts. Cervical cancer, the most serious side effect of HPV, directly affects over 12,000 women each year. Women and girls, ages 9 to 26, are encouraged to receive this vaccine to prevent cancer.
Since cervical cancer is a health issue exclusive to women, more emphasis has been directed towards women regarding HPV prevention, testing, and treatment. Consequently, there is a great deal of confusion surrounding HPV in men. When a man is notified that a female partner is diagnosed with HPV, he often has questions about how this virus will affect him and how to get tested.
HPV: High Risk vs. Low Risk Infections
In both men and women, HPV infections are either low risk or high risk. High risk infections cause cancer, cervical or other cancers, and low risk infections cause benign genital warts. When identifying HPV symptoms in either case, they are often nonexistent. The only visible symptom is genital warts, an indicator of a low risk infection.
High risk HPV can be potentially deadly in women, but men more often acquire harmless, low risk infections. High risk HPV infections in men do not have any symptoms. However, the vast majority of HPV in men is benign and will clear up naturally. Although rare, HPV can cause certain types of cancers in men. Each year, approximately 1,000 U.S. males are diagnosed with HPV-related penile cancer; 1,700 men are diagnosed with HPV-related anal cancer; and 5,700 men are diagnosed with HPV-related cancers of the head and neck.
No Need for HPV Testing in Men
While women are encouraged to have their gynecologist perform a Pap test each year to detect any abnormal cells caused by HPV, there is no equivalent of male HPV testing available. This often causes concern in men, but HPV in men almost always goes away without causing any long-term problems making testing irrelevant. In some specific cases, doctors do utilize anal pap tests as a means of male HPV testing, but there is no routine screening recommended for anal cancer or HPV in general. When it comes to diagnosing HPV-related genital warts in men, warts are diagnosed through a visual examination by a doctor.
Male HPV Vaccination and Prevention
Gardasil—the same vaccine used to prevent the HPV infection in women—can also be administered in males aged 9 through 26 to prevent the virus. Though not a substitute for male HPV testing, Gardasil can protect against the strains of the virus that cause 90 percent of genital warts in men. Evidence also suggests that this vaccine may protect against HPV related cancers that affect men. The HPV vaccine is specifically recommend for men who have sex with other men since they are at a higher risk for anal cancer. Furthermore, it can reduce the transmission of this virus to women who are more likely to develop high risk, cancer-causing HPV infections.
The Future of HPV in Men
As of 2009, Gardasil was approved by the FDA to prevent HPV in men and boys. This vaccine has yet to be distributed among the masses, but it can prevent genital warts and shows promise in preventing certain cancers in men. This vaccine is highly encouraged and may soon be a standard vaccine for young boys. But until that happens, men who have possibly been infected with HPV do not need to worry; in the vast majority of cases, HPV does not harm men and will self-resolve.