How do men get HPV?

Men can get HPV in the following ways:

  • Having unprotected sex
  • Skin-to-skin contact
  • An infected mother can pass the HPV infection onto their child during their pregnancy or during childbirth

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection – so it can be spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. In some cases, HPV can also be spread by prolonged skin-to-skin contact, typically during sex.

HPV can also be passed on non-sexually – as HPV can be spread by skin-to-skin contact, it is possible to become infected with HPV during hand-to-genital contact. This may happen during sexual contact, but it can also happen in more mundane situations; i.e. if a wart is on someone’s hand, the virus could be passed to the skin of another person. HPV infections may also be congenital (i.e. you can be born with it). It is possible for an infected mother to pass the HPV infection onto their child during their pregnancy or during childbirth.

What are the chances that men will get HPV? 

Around 80% of all sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in their life. There are some things that make it more likely for a man to get HPV:

  • Having a higher number of sexual partners increases the likelihood that you will be infected, as is the case with any sexually transmitted infection.
  • As the HPV vaccination is only offered routinely to women, men who have sex with men receive little indirect benefit from this vaccination programme. Due to lower vaccination rates within the male population, it is more likely that men who have sex with men will be infected with HPV than those who do not.
  • In addition, men with weakened immune systems (such as those on immunosuppressive medications or those with diseases such as HIV) are more at risk of being infected with HPV and developing further complications.

What are the symptoms of HPV in men?

Most infections don’t cause symptoms – while HPV is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection, most HPV infections cause no symptoms, clears up on its own, and does not lead to any health problems. However, there are certain high-risk types of HPV that are known to cause cancer. These high-risk types of HPV are what the HPV vaccine protects against. There are some low-risk types of HPV that can cause genital warts as well, but these types do not develop into cancer.

The main visible symptom is warts – if you have long-lasting HPV infection, then you may develop genital or oral warts. These warts can appear on their own, or in a small cluster around the affected area. Warts can also go away on their own, but it is possible that they could stay the same or even grow in size and/or numbers if left untreated.

These warts can appear on, or around, your:

  • Penis
  • Scrotum
  • Anus
  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Tongue

If you notice any unusual skin changes, growths, lumps, or sores in these areas, please get in contact with a medical professional as soon as possible to have them checked out.

What are the risks and complications of HPV in men?

It depends on the type of infection – while most HPV infections will cause no symptoms and will clear without treatment, certain high-risk types of HPV can lead to further health complications in men.

Potential risks of certain HPV infections – HPV types 16 and 18 are known to cause a number of cancers in men, including:

  • Penile
  • Anal
  • Rectal
  • Head and neck
  • Oropharynx (mouth, tongue, throat, and tonsils)

HPV in men has also been linked to male infertility – HPV infected sperm has been found to have reduced motility compared to healthy sperm, which means that infect sperm has difficulty reaching the egg to fertilise it. In addition, HPV infected sperm that successfully fertilises an egg increases the likelihood of an early miscarriage.

How can men protect themselves against HPV?

Preventing infection is the best protection – while there is no treatment or cure for HPV itself, the symptoms of HPV can be treated. This means that the only way to protect yourself against HPV is to take precautions to prevent yourself from being infected in the first place.

Below are some of the ways men can protect themselves from HPV:

  • HPV vaccine – the HPV vaccine (Gardasil 9) is the most effective method to protect yourself against high-risk types of HPV, which can cause cancer and genital warts. Gardasil 9 protects against HPV-types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58, which are the 9 types of HPV that cause majority of HPV-related diseases and cancers.
  • Practicing safe-sex – using condoms every time you have sex lowers the chance that you will be infected by HPV. However, as HPV can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, condoms are not 100% effective in preventing the spread of HPV.
  • Abstinence or monogamy – abstaining from sex, or only having sex with someone who has only ever had sex with you, is the only way to ensure that you will not contract HPV.
  • HPV Tests – most HPV test kits that are available are specifically for women, using a cervical swab to take the sample Male test kits do exist, but they may be harder to acquire or access. In addition, because HPV is so common; more often than not, it will not lead to health problems Men who have sex with men can get an anal pap test, similar to a cervical screening. This test checks if there are cells in the anus that could become cancerous, so any abnormal cells that have been detected can be removed before they develop into cancer.

Why is HPV prevention more focused on women?

Because of the link between HPV and cancer in women – HPV (human papillomavirus) is a virus that can cause a number of different cancers, and genital warts, in both males and females. Before this had been proven, it was theorised that there was a relationship between HPV and cancer. Research in the 1970s and 1980s first demonstrated a direct link between HPV and cervical cancer, proving the relationship by identifying that types of HPV were present in precancerous cervical tumours and in cervical cancer cells.

There were public health reasons for focusing on women – at the time, cervical cancer was also the second most common cancer in the world, with breast cancer being the most common, and was fatal to around 50% of all women who had it. The HPV vaccine was developed with a focus on reducing the number of women getting cervical cancer, and as a result the vaccine was only initially trialled on females. HPV was soon linked with a number of female-specific cancers, such as vaginal and vulvar cancers, which put more emphasis on the vaccine being developed for females. Once developed, the HPV vaccine was only routinely administered to females.

The medical community is now recognising the importance of HPV in men – studies into the effects of HPV in men were done later, and demonstrated a link between HPV and penile and anal cancers. This was most pronounced in men who have sex with men, who are most at risk of penile and anal cancers caused by HPV. However, by this time HPV already had a strong societal association with female cancers. Ongoing research has shown that men would also benefit from the HPV vaccine, and it has been announced that the HPV vaccine will soon be routinely administered to both boys and girls aged 12-13 in England, Wales and Scotland.

Superdrug Health Clinics has offered the HPV vaccine to both boys and girls since the service was launched as we understand the potential health risks that HPV can pose, regardless of biological sex or sexuality.