Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) gets a lot of attention in women. That’s because HPV can cause cervical cancer—that’s the cancer doctors are looking for when they perform a Pap test. But it’s a mistake to think that HPV doesn’t affect men.
In fact, a study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases found that men were more likely to be infected with HPV than women, and a brief published by the National Center for Health Statistics reported that men are more likely to be infected with high-risk strains (types) of HPV.
Chafeek Tomeh, MD, an otolaryngologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Arizona, said that HPV is a widespread virus in both men and women, and it’s the most common cause of sexually transmitted disease.
HPV spreads by close human contact, including intimate sexual contact. Oftentimes, there are no HPV symptoms and the infection can go unnoticed. However, it can cause papillomas, which are growths similar to warts that can appear on the genital area, skin or throat in men. And while the papillomas themselves are not cancerous, HPV can cause cancer. Here, Dr. Tomeh dispelled some common myths about HPV in men.
Myth: HPV causes health problems in women, not men.
Fact: “Most people don’t know that HPV can cause cancer in both men and women,” Dr. Tomeh said. HPV can cause various types of cancers in men, including those that affect the tonsils, base of the tongue, anus and penis. While penile and anal cancers are rare, cancers in the throat are the most common HPV-related cancers found in men. Men should see their doctor if they notice any growths in the neck, mouth, throat or penis.
Myth: A condom can prevent human papillomavirus infection.
Fact: Condoms can offer protection during penetrative sexual contact reducing the risk of an HPV infection. They can also provide protection during oral sexual contact. You need a dental dam or female condom to help protect against HPV infection when performing oral sex on a woman. However, HPV can still be transmitted even when using a condom if the HPV virus is present in the areas of skin not covered by the condom.
Myth: HPV infections aren’t serious in men.
Fact: An HPV infection can lead to cancer in men, which could require surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Throat surgery to treat cancer can make it difficult to speak or swallow which can lead to social barriers, seclusion and loneliness. “Sometimes, people need a long time to finish meals, so they don’t feel comfortable eating in social settings,” Dr. Tomeh said.
And treatment for penile cancer can involve removing some or all of the penis, which can affect the ability to urinate or engage in sexual activity. “Treatments can be pretty severe, but thankfully, many men don’t require this level of intervention,” Dr. Tomeh said.
Myth: Men can be screened to see if they are infected with HPV.
Fact: There isn’t a good screening test for HPV in men until a lesion grows. “We test for HPV in a papilloma, tumor or growth,” Dr. Tomeh said. “And we can screen for certain cancers associated with HPV, but there isn’t a good way to screen for the virus itself.”
Myth: A man can’t give a woman HPV.
Fact: A man can transmit HPV to a woman through intimate skin to skin contact, as well as contact with genital warts or within semen during vaginal sex. And remember, HPV can cause cervical cancer in women.
Myth: Boys don’t need to be vaccinated against HPV.
Fact: Vaccination against HPV protects against throat cancer—the fastest-growing head and neck cancer. “Many of the patients I see have throat cancer from HPV, which is completely preventable with a vaccine,” Dr. Tomeh said. “Everyone should get vaccinated.” The HPV vaccine is recommended for everyone ages 9-26 and is best given at ages 11-12. When you vaccinate before age 15 two doses are enough. After age 15 you need three doses. People ages 27-45 should talk to their doctor about the benefits of getting the HPV vaccine.
Parents may feel that their son doesn’t need to be vaccinated since he isn’t sexually active. But that will likely change one day. “Parents will not be able to control how many sexual partners their children have or how many sexual partners their child’s partner may have had,” Dr. Tomeh said. The risk of HPV infection is higher with more sexual partners. When it comes to sexually transmitted diseases, public health professionals often say that you are essentially sleeping with everyone your partner has slept with.
The bottom line
Often, men aren’t aware of HPV infection, or they think it’s only a problem for women. But HPV infection in men can cause dangerous cancers, so it’s essential to be vaccinated and to watch for any signs of infection. To talk with a health care professional to learn how to reduce your risk of sexually transmitted diseases, contact Banner Health.