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Our support services at Jo’s mainly hear from women. But sometimes we also hear from men and partners of women. Sometimes they are asking about their wife or partner’s health, and at others, it’s about their own.
As a cervical cancer charity, we can only give information within our expertise, but we have created this blog because we know HPV raises a lot of questions for both men and women. It covers the most common questions that we are asked and lists sources of further information.
*this blog talks about men and women. We know not every person with a cervix identifies as a woman, and this can include some trans men and / or non binary people. Some people who identify as a man might have a cervix too. At Jo’s we are here to support everyone who needs us.
Do you know what HPV is? For many people the answer is no. You might have heard of it if you had a vaccine for it at school, or if you have a partner who was told they have HPV in their cervical screening results. Human papillomavirus or HPV is a common type of virus - about 8 in 10 of us will have it during our lifetime. HPV is divided into two broad categories, low-risk and high-risk types. While the low-risk types don’t cause any symptoms or cause non serious ones like warts, the high-risk types are associated with cervical cancer. Reassuringly, around 9 in 10 of us will clear an HPV infection with no further issues, though this can take up to two years.
HPV is passed on through sexual contact. This includes sexual intercourse, but it can also be passed on through oral sex, touching in the genital area and sharing sex toys. HPV is not considered an STI though. It is not tested for at sexual health clinics, there are no symptoms and there are no treatments. It is also very common, so we tend to think of HPV as more like a cold virus. There is still a lot of stigma around HPV but most of us will have it at some point in our lives. Having HPV does not mean someone has been promiscuous, and it is nothing to be ashamed of.
High-risk HPV is tested for in cervical screening. This is because it can cause changes to the cells in the cervix which can increase the risk of cervical cancer developing. By testing for HPV at cervical screening, we can monitor those women who have it more closely, so any changes to the cells can be picked up at a very early stage. Nearly all cervical cancers are due to high-risk HPV.
There is currently no routine HPV test available for men. We know this can be worrying to hear but it’s important to remember that most of us, about 9 in 10, will clear an HPV infection without any problems.
High-risk HPV is linked to other types of cancer, including those that can affect men. This includes some head and neck cancers, cancer of the penis and anal cancer. Thinking about cancer as a whole, there are only very few types that we can screen for, including cervical cancer. For the majority of cancers, the advice is to see your GP if you notice anything that is unusual for you. That might include a lump, pain, bleeding or discharge. But we don’t want anyone to be worried by this. Most people with HPV won’t have any problems.
According to Cancer Research UK, the estimated lifetime risks of being diagnosed with one of these types of cancer for males born after 1960 in the UK are:
The general advice is no, you do not need to do anything differently if you or your partner have HPV. This means you don’t need to tell anyone unless you want to, and you can continue your life as normal.
We know that using barrier methods of contraception such as condoms, and dental dams, can reduce the risk of passing on HPV but it doesn’t eliminate the risk completely. This is because HPV lives on the skin in the genital area, and condoms don’t cover the whole area.
If you are a trans-man or you identify as non-binary and you have a cervix, you cannot ask to be tested for HPV just because your partner has it. You are entitled to have regular cervical screening though from the age of 25 onwards, the intervals between your screenings will depend on your age and which country in the UK you live in.
This is a common concern and the answer is that we just don’t know enough about HPV to answer this fully. It is possible this can happen within a couple, but it is also possible we could build up some immunity through having the virus.
The short answer is no! But we know many men and women worry about this, and it can be confusing if you’ve been with someone a long time and they then test positive for HPV. HPV is a type of virus that can be dormant in our bodies for some time before it becomes an active infection. If it’s dormant then our immune system doesn’t know it’s there so can’t fight it off, but it is also not causing any harm. For reasons we don’t fully understand the virus can become active many years later and so show up on a test at cervical screening.
Because the virus can behave this way it is impossible to work out when someone first came into contact with it, and/or when it became an active infection.
Knowing your partner has HPV can be worrying for both of you. We hear from many women who are worried about themselves, as well as their partners. It’s hard as there is little you can do to take control, there are no treatments or lifestyle changes, other than stopping smoking, that have been shown to be effective in helping you to clear the infection. And women have to wait a year for their next appointment. Some women describe feeling as if their life is on hold, and that they are feeling worried, upset and embarrassed about having HPV. Here are some things you can encourage your partner to do to help: