HPV virus FAQs

The HPV virus and the serious diseases it can cause.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the name for a group of viruses that affect the skin and moist areas around the body. (It is completely different from HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.) 

There are around 200 types of HPV. Many are harmless. But some types are dangerous and can cause cancer while others cause genital warts.

How do you catch HPV?

HPV infection is very common – it is spread by sexual contact.

Condoms reduce the risk but do not eliminate it because HPV can infect areas not covered by a condom. (Some studies suggest that deep kissing spreads HPV but this has not been proven.)

Vulnerable areas for HPV infection in males include the penis, anus, mouth and throat.

You cannot catch the dangerous types of HPV from toilet seats, hugging, holding hands, swimming pools or hot tubs or sharing food or cutlery.

Have I got HPV?

Nearly all sexually active people will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lives. Because the infection is so common, many people are infected shortly after becoming sexually active for the first time. A person who has had only one sexual partner can get HPV although people who have many partners, or who have sex with someone who has had many partners, are more at risk.

Most people with HPV don’t know they are infected and never develop a health problem as a result. HPV usually goes away on its own without any long-term consequences. Having HPV does not mean you will automatically get cancer or genital warts. But HPV infection can persist in some people and cause health problems, sometimes years later. It is not possible to predict which people with HPV will go to develop health problems but people with weak immune systems are thought to be more at risk. People with HIV/AIDS are among those at greater risk. Smoking may also be a factor.

HPV vaccination is by far the best way of preventing infection and the diseases caused by the virus. You can read about vaccination on the HPV vaccination FAQs page.

What diseases are caused by HPV?

The high-risk types of HPV include HPV 16 and 18. These types can cause cancer. Genital warts are caused by HPV 6 and 11. The cancer-causing and wart-causing types are different. This means that genital warts are not an early-warning sign of cancer. HPV is estimated to cause 5% of all cancers.

Doctors who treat cancer have found that HPV can cause cancers of the penis, anus, head and neck in men. About 2,000 men a year in the UK develop a cancer caused by HPV and some of these cancers are becoming more common.

Head and neck cancers

The clinical evidence shows that HPV causes cancer in different parts of the head and neck, especially the oropharynx. (The oropharynx includes the back third of the tongue, the soft area at the back of the roof of the mouth, the tonsils and the back wall of the throat.) Up to three quarters of oropharyngeal cancer cases are caused bv HPV. This cancer mostly affects men – they are twice as likely to be affected as women. Mouth and throat cancers caused by HPV have become far more common over the past 30 years, a trend that is expected to continue over the next 20 years.

Anal cancer

HPV causes the vast majority (90%) of anal cancer cases. This cancer is relatively rare in the UK with around 430 new cases in men in the UK in 2014 (it is about twice as common in women). But the number of cases in men is expected to more than double in the period up to 2035. Anal cancer is much more common in men who have sex with other men. Over 140 men in the UK died from anal cancer in 2014.

Penile cancer

Clinical studies suggest that HPV infection causes up to half (48%) of penile cancer cases. This cancer is relatively rare in the UK: there were around 630 new cases in the UK in 2014, an average of two new cases every day. However, penile cancer is becoming more common with 25% more cases now being diagnosed each year than in the early 1990s. There were 130 penile cancer deaths in 2014. More on penile cancer.

Genital warts

HPV causes genital warts, the second most common sexually transmitted infection. In men, warts can develop on the penis, scrotum, urethra (the tube which urine goes through from the bladder to the penis), the upper thighs and on, or inside, the anus. Both men and women are affected but the problem is much more common in men. UK-wide data on the number of cases of warts is not available but HPV Action estimates that about 40,000 cases are diagnosed in men each year. More on genital warts.

Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP)

People with RRP have wart-like growths on their airways. These can seriously affect breathing. RRP affects both children and adults. Children are infected while still in the womb or at birth. Males and females are about equally affected.

Doctors treating breathing diseases have found that HPV is the cause of this rare but distressing problem. It can affect children as well as adults of both sexes and can be difficult to cure.

Isn't there a vaccine against HPV?

Yes, there is. You can read about vaccination on the HPV vaccination FAQs page.

Where can I get more information?
The content of this article originally appeared on the Jabs For The Boys website which was validated for the Information Standard by the Men's Health Forum.

Date published 20/07/18
Date of last review 20/07/18
Date of next review 20/07/21

References

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