The thing about HPV is this: You should just assume that you’ve either had it, you’ve got it or you’re going to get it. Some proof to back me up: It’s currently estimated that 80 percent of sexually active men and women in the U.S. will contract HPV at some point in their lives.
And I know what you might be thinking: “I’m a guy! I don’t have a cervix, so who cares if I’ve got a little HPV coursing through my veins?” Well, guy, quite apart from maybe considering all the women you could potentially infect, you should probably know that HPV is just as dangerous for you. “Sometime in the next decade, we’ll have more cancers due to HPV in men than women,” says Noel Brewer, a professor of Health Behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
If that’s fully sunk in, let’s begin our HPV FAQ ASAP.
Fine, you have my attention. What is HPV, anyway?
According to the CDC, HPV (short for Human Papillomavirus) is a group of more than 150 related viruses that can cause certain cancers. These include cervical cancer in women, penile cancer in men, and anal cancer in both men and women. Additionally, HPV can cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils, which is referred to as oropharyngeal cancer. “Each HPV virus in this large group is given a number which is called its HPV type,” reports the CDC. “HPV is named for the warts (papillomas) some HPV types can cause.”
Er, did you say warts?
Yep. And sometimes, they’re so small and flat that you might not notice them right away. They may clump together or look like cauliflower. “You might feel itching, bleeding, burning or pain. But genital warts can often take months or years to show, if they ever do,” reports WebMD. “Your doctor will decide whether your genital warts need treatment with medications, cryotherapy (freezing off the warts), surgery or an acid solution.”
According to Brewer, in some “exotic cases of HPV,” a man can develop genital warts in their urethra. “You’ll have to get your dick cut open and have the warts excised,” he tells me.
*Thirty-six seconds of incomprehensible screaming* What can I do to make sure I don’t get HPV?
If used correctly, condoms can help reduce the risk of genital HPV. “However, because HPV is transmitted through genital skin contact (not just sexual intercourse) condoms don’t provide 100 percent protection against HPV,” reports HPV.com. Luckily, there are vaccinations available for both men and women. “The HPV vaccine can prevent three cancers in men: Oral, penile and anal cancer,” says Brewer. “The vaccine protects against nine different strains of HPV.” FYI: Seven of the strains that the vaccine protects against cause cancer, and two of the strains you can be vaccinated for cause warts.
Is it true that it’s only worth getting the HPV vaccine if you’re younger than 18?
According to Brewer, while the vaccine is only covered by insurance up through the age of 18 by some (and 21 by others), that doesn’t mean it’s too late for those who are older. “The problem is that there’s no official data on how the vaccine protects against HPV after the age of 27,” says Brewer. Which is why it’s no longer considered cost effective for the prevention program. “The CDC often makes recommendations based on economics (i.e., cost effectiveness), so it’s basing its age-related recommendation on the fact that these cancers are rare,” urologist Dudley Danoff explained to MEL last year. “In one study, half the infections in men happened before they turned 24.”
Still, for gay and bisexual men, the HPV vaccine is recommended by the CDC to prevent genital warts and other HPV-associated diseases and conditions such as oropharyngeal or anal cancer up until the age of 26. “The HPV vaccine is given as a three-dose series over six months. It is best to be vaccinated before your first sexual contact, but later vaccination can still protect you if you have not been exposed to HPV,” reports the CDC.
Brewer agrees, telling me that if his son wasn’t already vaccinated past the age of 26, he’d get him vaccinated today. “Just because you may already have one type of HPV, that doesn’t mean you can’t contract the other types that the vaccine can prevent you from getting,” says Brewer. In other words, even if your insurance is no longer going to pay for the vaccination, it’s worth the $130 per shot (you need three rounds) to get protected.
How do I know if I even have it in the first place?
The answer, if you’re a guy, is basically that you won’t know unless you notice a genital wart. “There’s currently no approved test doctors can use for guys to find out if they have HPV,” says Brewer.
Great. So I could already have the sort of HPV that causes cancer, but there’s no way to even find out?
First of all, the good news is that the body’s immune system usually eliminates the virus without treatment within about two years. But according to Brewer, we don’t have any standard tests for HPV cancers other than cervical cancer. “For anal cancer, gay and bi men should think about getting an anal Pap test every few years,” he says. “It’s becoming pretty common for doctors to do this. It’s a strong incentive for young guys to get the HPV vaccine for themselves.” Not to mention that just yesterday, new data came out that the rates of oral cancer caused by HPV in men has increased by up to 50 percent from just a few years before.
The short, short version: Go get vaccinated right now. Unless you want to risk having your dick cut open.