The human papillomavirus (HPV) is actually a group of 100 related viruses, some of which simply cause warts on the hands and feet, while others result in painful genital warts or even lead to cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HPV infects both men and women and “at least 70 percent of sexually active persons will be infected with genital HPV at some time in their lives,” according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
HPV infections are widespread in the United States, and the number of people with HPV is growing. An estimated 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV and another 6.2 million people will become infected each year, according to the CDC. HPV viruses are classified as low-risk (those that cause warts) and high risk (those that can lead to cancer). Cervical cancer is the most common cancer linked to HPV, but the virus can also cause cancer of the penis, anus, vulva or vagina, according to the CDC.
How HPV Spreads
HPV spreads through sexual contact, and both men and women can pass it to sexual partners. Frequently a person who is infected with HPV has no symptoms but can still pass the virus to a partner. "Most infected persons do not realize they are infected or that they are passing the virus to a sex partner," according to the CDC.
“No HPV screening test is available for men, in whom the infection is diagnosed only by visual inspection or biopsy of genital warts,” according to the Mayo Clinic. If you are a sexually active man, perform self exams for genital warts and also ask your health care provider to screen for these during regular exams. Genital warts can appear weeks or months after infection. “They sometimes appear in clusters that resemble cauliflower-like bumps, and are either raised or flat, small or large,” according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “In men, genital warts can appear on the scrotum or penis.” Genital warts have also been found on the thigh, groin and anus areas.
If you think you may have genital warts, see your health care provider for diagnosis. Even if you cannot see them, your health care provider may be able to detect the warts. “Your provider may be able to identify some otherwise invisible warts in your genital tissue by applying vinegar (acetic acid) to areas of your body that might be infected,” according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. “This solution causes infected areas to whiten, which makes them more visible.”
Although there is currently no medical cure for the HPV virus, the lesions and warts caused by the virus can be treated. Your doctor may not treat low-risk warts because your immune system often rids your body of these itself. A number of options are available to your healthcare provider for high-risk warts. “Methods commonly used to treat lesions include cryosurgery (freezing that destroys tissue), LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure, the removal of tissue using a hot wire loop), and conventional surgery,” according to the NIH.
If you are sexually active, a condom can help protect against contracting the disease and also help stop the spread of the virus if you already have HPV. However, condoms are not completely effective because the virus can infect areas not covered by the condom. Soon, vaccines may provide additional defense against the disease for both men and women.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first HPV vaccine in 2006. This vaccine protects women from the HPV viruses responsible for 70 percent of the cases of cervical cancer worldwide, according to the NIH. Research is currently underway to develop vaccines for other strains of the virus and for vaccinations for both men and women.