HPV—or Human Papilloma Virus if you want to sound smart—is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) out there. There are more than 100 types of HPV and about 40 can be passed on through sexual contact. This means that if you are sexually active and have had multiple partners, you will most likely have an HPV infection at some point in your life—it’s that common.
There are a few types of HPV that can cause genital warts and a handful of rare types that are linked to causing throat, penis or anal cancer in guys. But for the most part, HPV infections are harmless and you won’t show any symptoms of having them. Your body will get rid of them on its own.
So how do you know if you have HPV or not? Well for cisgender guys, there’s no routine test. You would really only know if you have one of the types that causes warts (or the above mentioned cancers).
If you end up contracting HPV that develops into warts, don’t worry too much. The types of HPV that cause warts are mostly harmless to the rest your health. In the business of STIs, genital warts are described as “cauliform” in shape—basically meaning they often look bumpy like the top of cauliflower. HPV warts are usually flesh-coloured or darker in colour, and can be found anywhere down there—on your penis, under your foreskin, at the base of the penis, around your pubes, or around your anus. For trans guys they can also be found in or around your front hole.
Warts are either treated with prescription creams, frozen off with liquid nitrogen spray or, in extreme cases, may require surgical removal. If you do have warts and are in the middle of treatment, some tips are not to shave or scratch the area where the warts are (it helps them spread) and definitely do not use any sort of over-the-counter wart treatment on your genitals (it’s not meant for genital warts and you’ll end up causing yourself a lot of pain).
HPV is passed on through any type of sexual activity that involves skin-to-skin contact. The risk of transmission can be reduced—but not eliminated completely—by using barriers like condoms or dental dams for oral and anal, or frontal sex. There is also a vaccine available called Gardasil 9 that you can get that provides immunity against HPV (aka resistance against the virus). Gardasil 9 protects against 9 types of HPV—those most likely to cause cancer and the ones most likely to cause genital warts.
As of 2014, HPV vaccines are offered to all grade five students in Alberta, regardless of gender. It’s likely that, if you’re reading this, you missed out on that opportunity. Fortunately, the vaccine has been shown to be effective up until the age of 26 but you can get it at any age as it would likely provide some degree of protection, even if you get it when you’re older. Unfortunately though, outside of those vaccinated in grade school, Gardasil 9 is not free. For it to be effective, you need three doses over a six month period, with each dose costing around $150. If you have health insurance, check with your plan to see if all or part of it might be covered.
Finally, for trans guys who have a cervix, it’s important to find out if you need a pap test (a test that examines the cells on the cervix for any abnormalities that might be related to cervical cancer). Have a discussion with a healthcare provider and follow the screening guidelines. Usually these tests start at age 21 or 3 years after your first sexual contact, whichever comes later, and then every year until your family doctor suggests to change that interval. For people living with HIV, it is also a good idea to discuss regular anal pap tests with your HIV physician. Because HIV affects your immune system, you could be at a higher risk for developing anal cancers. Getting screened can catch precancerous changes as early as possible.