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Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the virus that can cause warts on the penis, anus or surrounding areas. Though uncommon, some types can eventually cause cancers in both men and women. HPV is very common, with more than 75% of sexually active people getting the infection, usually between the ages of 18-25. Only about 10% of people who get HPV infection actually get warts and fewer still develop HPV-related cancers. The rest usually don’t know they have it.
Remember, for most HPV infections there may be no symptoms at all.
Symptoms can include small bumpy warts around the penis, testicles, and anus that can be difficult to see or discomfort when going to the toilet if the inside of the anus is infected, but they can also be painless. If symptoms are present they will generally appear two to three months after being infected, but can take much longer. Outbreaks of warts can then reappear periodically.
Typically, the types of HPV that cause warts do not cause cancers. For these types of HPV there are often no signs or symptoms. Most HPV-related cancers develop later in life, usually after the age of 60 years. Symptoms for HPV-related cancers vary by the site of the cancer. For more information visit the New Zealand HPV Project.
HPV is passed on from skin to skin contact, anal sex and, sometimes, oral sex. HPV types that causes warts can be transmitted even when there are no visible warts, but having visible warts makes transmission more likely.
If you have a strain that results in symptoms a doctor will be able to carry out a physical examination to look for warts. If they're there - you've got HPV. Screening for cervical cancers now incorporate HPV testing for the types that cause cancers, but there is no recommended screening for other HPV-related cancers (oral, penile, anal). Testing for HPV at non-cervical sites are not readily available (and the clinical importance of a positive test is not clear).
HPV infections can clear over time or stay for life depending on many factors. If warts appear or reappear, they can be treated by cryotherapy (freezing), surgery, or medication. Sometimes, your doctor may advise to wait with no treatment for the warts to clear on their own.
Outbreaks of warts can be more severe and harder to treat in men living with HIV. Some types of genital wart viruses have been linked to a greater risk of anal cancer. This risk appears even greater for men living with HIV. For those aged 40 years and older, regular screening for anal HPV-related cancers is recommended. Talk to your specialist about the possibility of regular anal cancer screenings.
Condoms can reduce the risk of transmission but do not always cover the infected area, as the HPV could be on your balls or ass.
A vaccine is available and is free everyone between the ages of 9-26. The vaccine works best if you are vaccinated before you start having sex. However, it is still useful even once you’ve had sex - as you may not be exposed to all strains of HPV. Chat to your doctor.
The NZAF network