Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a fairly common sexually transmitted infection among guys who have sex with guys in Australia. HPV is the virus that can cause genital and anal warts.
There are many different strains of HPV, however only some strains of HPV cause genital or anal warts and in some cases anal cancer.
While carrying HPV is fairly common, only about 10% of guys who have HPV will ever develop visible warts.
HPV is passed on from skin to skin contact, anal sex and occasionally via oral sex. HPV can be transmitted even when there are no visible warts, however having visible warts makes transmission more likely.
While some types of HPV can cause warts, other strains can cause cancer. In men, cancers that are associated with HPV often include cancer of the anus, penis, tongue, throat and tonsils. Men who have receptive anal sex (bottoms) are at highest risk and are about 50 times more likely to develop anal cancer than other men. People who are HIV positive are at even higher risk of anal cancer.
What are the symptoms?
More often than not, there will be no symptoms associated with HPV. However, guys who carry HPV may develop warts at some point. The first sign of warts are growths or lumps in the genital and/or anal area which can appear up to 3-12 months after first getting HPV. The warts are usually painless and will often disappear on their own without treatment. They can appear on the penis, balls, arse and very rarely on the mouth.
Some strains of HPV can also increase your risk of genital or anal cancer, however these strains are different to the ones that can cause warts.
How do I get tested for HPV?
Warts are generally diagnosed by sight. If you believe you have symptoms, speak to your doctor or visit your local sexual health centre. A doctor will then be able to confirm whether genital and/or anal warts are present. If you have warts, it means that you have HPV.
How can I be treated?
There is no cure for the HPV virus itself. However, genital and anal warts can be treated if and when they pop up. Without treatment, warts can stay the same, go away on their own, or get worse. Whether or not you treat them is totally up to you (the warts themselves are completely harmless). However, if left untreated, warts can increase in numbers and become harder to get rid of.
Doctors can prescribe special paints or creams that can remove warts, and sometimes doctors will freeze or burn the warts. However, warts can come back. Sometimes, several treatments are needed before they go away completely.
How can I reduce the risk of contracting HPV?
Just like other STIs, condoms can reduce the risk of HPV transmission. However, they are not completely effective because they do not cover all areas where the virus can be present, such as your balls or arse.
There is a very effective vaccine available called Gardasil, which protects guys from the four major strains of HPV that cause genital warts and anal cancer.
Until 31 December 2018, gay and bi guys aged 20-34 years old in NSW can get the vaccine for free. You can find out more here.
What if I’m HIV positive?
Poz guys are more likely to have HPV than negative guys. If you’re poz and you have HPV, your immune system may be weakened. In this instance, your HPV infection may be more severe, with more frequent flare-ups than guys who are negative. Poz guys are also at an increased risk of anal cancer, so speaking to your doctor about getting vaccinated is a good idea. If you’re living with HIV, Positive Life NSW has developed an additional resource on how HPV and anal cancer may affect you while providing some additional suggestions for how to reduce your risk. You can preview it here.
If I’m on PrEP, how will HPV affect me?
While PrEP is highly effective at preventing HIV transmission, it offers no protection from HPV. Getting vaccinated and using condoms and lube are the best way to reduce your risk of contracting HPV.
Fast facts about HPV
- HPV is the virus that can cause genital warts and anal cancer
- It’s usually passed on via skin to skin contact and anal sex
- Most sexually active guys will contract HPV at some point in their lives
- Condoms only offer some protection
- There is a free vaccine available that consists of three doses administered over six months