HPV (human papillomavirus) is a common and highly contagious sexually transmitted infection. Although it is largely symptomless, HPV in men can lead to the development of genital warts (the second most common STD in the UK), and in women it can also lead to an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. Because of this increased cancer risk, most of the official advice around HPV focuses on women, but it is just as important for men to be aware of the condition and the HPV test.
How Common is HPV in Men?
HPV is just as common in men as it is in women. More than half of men who are sexually active will have HPV at some time in their life, and this figure is slightly higher for men within the gay community. Many men don’t realise that they have the HPV virus because it can be symptomless, meaning that they will clear the virus on their own without any medical intervention. But the long-term health implications of continuing to harbour the HPV virus without treatment can be dangerous, which is why regular testing for men is recommended.
The Risks of HPV Infection for Men
Just as HPV can increase the cervical cancer risk in women, certain types of the virus can increase the risk of penal and anal cancer in men. Fortunately, these cancer types are relatively rare in healthy men with uncompromised immune systems, but it is still a risk to be aware of.
Around 1,484 people are diagnosed with anal cancer in the UK every year, and the risk of developing this type of cancer is 17 times higher in gay and bisexual men than in men who only have sex with women. Many mouth cancers, such as those found on the tongue, in the tonsils, and at the back of the throat are also linked to HPV, which can be found in many moist membranes, not simply in the genital areas. It’s important to remember, though, that the likelihood of developing these kinds of cancers is very small.
The main risk involved in being infected with the HPV virus is that this will develop into genital warts. Statistics suggest that around 1% of sexually active men in the UK will have this condition. Once you have genital warts you can never truly get rid of them: whilst they may disappear from view, they will remain dormant until your immune system is vulnerable, when they can flare up again.
Testing for HPV Infection
Because there are often no visible symptoms of HPV infections, the only way to be sure of whether you are infected or not is to take a test. This is both fast and unobtrusive: simply swab yourself to harvest some of your skin cells and then send them off for investigation. Knowledge is power, and should you discover that you are HPV positive, you can act quickly to begin treatment and work towards better health.
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