The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) has infected 79 million Americans and is the most common of all sexually transmitted infections (STIs). If you are worried about the risk, it is more than warranted with these stats. The HPV viruses affect the moist membranes that line your body in addition to impacting your skin.1 Typical symptoms of HPVs are visible warts in the genital region, cervix, vagina, scrotum, penis, urethra, and even anus.2
But HPV is technically not just one single virus – it has around 150 variants, each assigned a number which is used to refer to its type. And depending on which type you have, you may experience different symptoms. For instance, HPV 6 and 11 may cause genital warts and respiratory papillomatosis.3 Unfortunately, there are also some types of HPV that can raise your risk of certain cancers (cervix, vagina, vulva, anus, penis, back of the throat, tonsils, or base of the tongue) though these forms of HPV don’t usually result in visible warts.4 High-risk HPVs like Type 16 and Type 18 fall into this category.5 Thankfully, knowing how it spreads and how you could protect yourself could go a long way in minimizing your risk of catching HPV.
HPV Is A Contagious Virus: Spreads Via Skin Contact Or Sexual Intercourse With Infected Person
If your top concern is whether or not HPV is contagious, the short answer is Yes! You can catch it from coming in contact with an infected individual. In fact, an estimated 14 million people are newly infected with some form of HPV each year in the United States alone.6 About 80 percent of all sexually active people get HPV at some point in their lives.7
- Vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
- Touching the genitals area of anyone infected with HPV.
- From mother to child in-utero or during delivery via an infected birth canal in a vaginal delivery.
- Sharing of sex toys.
- Sharing bath towels that have been used to rub the genital area may cause the infection to spread in rare cases.10
- Contact with HPV infected surfaces in hospitals and medical settings if they have not been properly disinfected. However, this mode of transmission needs to be understood further. Even with chemically disinfected medical instruments, one study found the presence of HPV. About 3.8% of transvaginal sonography probes were still HPV DNA positive even after disinfection. Surgical gloves were another such surface.11
- Toilet seats at clinics. Research suggests that the virus can be transmitted from patients’ genital area to their hands and then the toilet seat at genitourinary medicine clinics.12
HPV Can Be Passed On Unknowingly Without Visible Symptoms
The challenge with HPV is that people may carry the virus without even knowing it because they never have any symptoms. It is hard to detect the virus at its early stages, especially when you are pre-symptomatic. The virus may even completely leave your system due to your immune system’s actions. In fact, 9 out of 10 HPV infections usually resolve on its own in about 2 years.13
But HPV may also linger at undetectable levels and resurface when your immune system weakens. Which means you or your partner could infect each other unknowingly. And while condom use during intercourse and dental dams during oral sex may help a little and are advisable, they won’t protect against areas not covered by the condom. Which is why 70 percent or more of those with partners who have HPV have HPV themselves too.14
Certain Sexual Behavior Can Raise Risk Of HPV Infection
Risk of contracting HPV is higher among certain groups. You are more prone to being infected if you’ve had multiple sex partners or have a partner who has himself/herself had multiple sexual partners. Becoming sexually active at a young age also raises your risk.15
Possible To Catch Multiple Types Of HPV So Get Screened And Vaccinated
You should also know that you can be infected with multiple kinds of HPV at any given time. Having one form of HPV doesn’t mean you won’t get another.16
Check for visible signs like warts: You can protect yourself and your partner/s by checking for signs like warts. Look out for17:
- A single small bump or groups of bumps in the genital region
- These could small or large
- They may be flat, raised, or cauliflower-shaped
This kind of HPV doesn’t usually lead to greater cancer risk.
Get screened for cancer if you have high-risk HPVs: If you fear you may be at risk due to a long untreated high-risk HPV type, get yourself screened. Of all the cancers, cervical cancer is most associated with HPV, though the majority of women who have an HPV infection do not usually develop cervical cancer. Regular screening can go a long way in early detection and treatment.18
Get vaccinated if you are under 26 years old: In addition, pre-teens, teens, as well as young adults could get the HPV vaccine to protect themselves against possible future infection. This is best taken before becoming sexually active or before exposure to HPV. The HPV vaccine series is typically suggested for 11- or 12-year-olds but can be started as early as 9 years of age. Teens who have not already been vaccinated can still get the vaccine. Young men and women below age 26 too can get vaccinated. Beyond this, it is best to rely on screening to check for cancers.19
|↑1||What is HPV?. National Health Service.|
|↑2, ↑4, ↑17||What is HPV?. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.|
|↑3||Human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer. World Health Organization.|
|↑5||Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Planned Parenthood.|
|↑6||What is HPV? Questions and Answers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.|
|↑7, ↑18||Fast Facts. American Sexual Health Association.|
|↑8||Genital Warts(HPV). The Nemours Foundation.|
|↑9||Ryndock, Eric J., and Craig Meyers. “A risk for non-sexual transmission of human papillomavirus?.” (2014): 1165-1170.|
|↑10, ↑14, ↑16||Patient Information. The HPV Project.|
|↑11, ↑12||Liu, Zhiyue, Tasnuva Rashid, and Alan G. Nyitray. “Penises not required: a systematic review of the potential for human papillomavirus horizontal transmission that is non-sexual or does not include penile penetration.” Sexual health 13, no. 1 (2016): 10-21.|
|↑13||What is HPV? Questions and Answers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.|
|↑15||HPV(Human Papilloma Virus). US Food and Drug Administration.|
|↑19||Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccination. American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.|