Why Men Need to Worry About HPV

The cancer-causing STD carries risks for both men and women

Hey, guys, listen up: HPV isn’t just a women’s disease. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to transmit a venereal disease -- and half of you are running around with HPV, the most common STD in the U.S. 

A new study in the journal The Lancet reports that as many as one in two men carry human papillomavirus or HPV. The more partners he has, the greater his risk of contracting the sexually transmitted disease. Not surprisingly, the CDC reports the same number of women may also be infected with the cervical-cancer-causing STD.

Since there are no tests for HPV in men -- and often no symptoms -- just about every guy who has the STD doesn’t know it. For women, that means you have a 50-50 chance of exposing yourself to HPV each time you have unprotected sex. And by sex, we mean the usual baby-making fare, as well as blowjobs and backdoor entry. 

Even though it’s most often associated with cervical cancer, HPV is not harmless in men. You might think -- with the little press coverage that it gets in men-- that HPV just loiters innocuously in the male body, waiting to infect another sexual partner, and that guys get of scot-free. But that is definitely not the case. HPV can cause penile, anal, head and neck cancer. In addition to cervical cancer, HPV can lead to vulvar, vaginal, anal, head and neck cancer in women.

Think of HPV as the new herpes, except with far more serious consequences. Some people will clear the virus from their body naturally within two years. In others, HPV sticks around forever.

The good news is, there is now a HPV vaccine available to both young men and women. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first HPV vaccine, Gardasil, for women in 2006, and for men in 2009. But health officials haven’t urged men to get the HPV vaccine until recently. For the vaccine to be effective, men and women must get it before coming into contact with HPV. This means parents should make sure their kids get the vaccine in their tween to early teen years, before they become sexually active. And, again, that means before they start experimenting with oral sex, too. If everyone were to get vaccinated, it would significantly reduce the prevalence of HPV and the cancers that it causes. 

Because of the high incidence of HPV, my dentist now screens regularly for mouth cancer. During my first visit to him, he explained how he offers the service free of charge after attending a heart-wrenching conference that showed just how destructive oral cancer can be. He heard testimonials from men who didn’t realize their wife's HPV put them at risk of cancer, too.

While there is no HPV test for men, cervical cancer screenings in women do include an HPV test. Since the STD is so ubiquitous and elusive, it’s crucial that sexually active women go for their annual gynecological exams. If you have HPV, you should not engage in unprotected sexual activities until and unless it goes away. Though it’s a tricky conversation to have with your partner, not disclosing that information puts him or her at risk of cancer. And if those vengeful fantasies of doing in your ex are kicking in right now, put them away. People have sued their exes and won because they knowingly gave them an STD. 

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