Human Papilloma Virus (HPV or Genital Warts)
Think you may have been exposed to HPV or genital warts? Want to prevent an exposure? Here’s what you need to know.
What is human papilloma virus?
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). There are various strains or types of HPV that may show up on your penis or anus as genital warts. Some strains have been linked to oral and anal cancers.
How do I know if I have HPV?
- Almost everyone will be exposed to HPV during his lifetime, but most will never know it because they don’t develop visible warts or other symptoms.
- Some “low-risk” strains of HPV may cause genital warts that appear weeks or months after exposure. Small warts look like small bumps or pimples; bigger ones can look like cauliflower. The warts are usually painless but sometimes they itch or burn—occasionally they may bleed. The warts are bothersome but are usually benign.
- A small number of “high-risk” HPV strains are not associated with warts, but in rare cases they may cause oral or anal cancer (or cervical cancer in women).
How is HPV spread?
HPV is usually spread through anal sex, but can also be transmitted through oral sex, rimming or skin-on-skin contact. HPV is extremely common and spreads very easily.
How can I test for HPV?
- Currently there is no easy test for HPV. Most doctors or nurses diagnose HPV by seeing or feeling warts on the genital or anal area.
- A Pap smear is used routinely to test for precancerous cells on a woman’s cervix. Sometimes a similar test is used inside the anus of both men and women.
What do I do if I have HPV?
- Most people have no symptoms and the virus clears up by itself.
- HPV warts are usually treated by burning them with liquid nitrogen or other chemicals. Several treatments may be necessary and often the warts come back.
- Precancerous cells associated with certain “high-risk” strains of HPV can be successfully removed when detected early enough. There is a vaccine called Gardasil that will prevent infection from high-risk strains, but it is most effective when given before a person first becomes sexually active and is exposed to the virus.
How do I protect myself?
- Health Canada has approved the Gardasil vaccine for boys and men. This vaccine prevents four strains of HPV that cause warts or are linked to cancer. It is recommended that you get the vaccine before the age of 26 (or sexual debut), but there is evidence that all men can benefit from the vaccine, regardless of age. For more information on the vaccine, click here.
- Be honest with a health care professional about your sexual history. Let him know of any symptoms. Ask for a Gardasil prescription.
- Condoms will reduce exposure. Condoms do not guarantee protection (because they don’t cover all the skin surfaces from the penis and/or anus), but will reduce your overall exposure.
- PrEP, while effective at preventing HIV transmission, does not protect against other STIs such as HPV.
- Limiting the number of different guys you have sex with will also reduce your exposure.
HPV and HIV
- Nearly all HIV-positive guys have been exposed to HPV.
- Visible warts may be harder to treat if you are HIV positive, especially if your CD4 cell count is low. You may also be at increased risk of getting precancerous cells just inside your anus (anal dysplasia). If you are concerned about this, talk to your doctor.