How Is HPV Transmitted?

couple sitting on bed

Story at-a-glance -

  • Having vaginal, oral or anal sex with someone who has the virus is the most common way of acquiring an HPV infection
  • Once transmitted, the virus can then enter the body through a cut, abrasion or small tear in your skin, causing an infection

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that affects a growing number of the population today. In fact, it's so common that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that at least 79 million people in the country have it. Most of these infections are in people who are in their late teens or early 20s.1

Research shows that 90 percent of HPV infections go away by themselves within two years. In most people, this infection does not manifest any symptoms, and the affected person does not show any health problems.2 This is one of the potential reasons why HPV infection is so rampant today. But how exactly does HPV spread from one person to another? Keep reading to find out the common causes of HPV transmission.

Genital HPV Infection Is Spread Mainly Through Sexual Intercourse

Having vaginal, oral or anal sex with someone who has the virus is the most common way of acquiring an HPV infection.3 Any sexually active person can be prone to HPV. However, having multiple sex partners, smoking, taking oral contraceptives long-term or being coinfected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), herpes simplex virus (HSV) or chlamydia trachomatis and a low immune system or poor nutrition can increase your risk of an HPV infection persisting and possibly turning cancerous.4

While it's possible for HPV to be transmitted nonsexually,5,6 the virus typically spreads through sexual skin-to-skin contact, when the vagina, vulva, cervix, anus or penis touches another individual's genitals, or mouth and throat. It can spread even if no orgasm occurs; even if the penis does not penetrate the vagina, mouth or anus, the virus can still be passed on.7 Once transmitted, the virus can then enter the body through a cut, abrasion or small tear in your skin, causing an infection.8

Fact: The Human Papillomavirus Can Lie Dormant for a Long Period of Time

One of the most common myths surrounding HPV is that when a person acquires it even though their partner tested negative for the virus, it means that the infected individual has had sexual intercourse with another person. This misconception has caused a significant amount of confusion, anger and heartache among many couples, especially those in monogamous relationships.

The truth is that HPV, as noted above, not only can be transmitted in nonsexual ways — including at birth — but it also has the ability to lie latent. It can take weeks, years or even a lifetime before it makes its presence known. Warts, lesions or cervical abnormalities may just suddenly arise.

In fact, there is no way to find out how long an HPV infection has been in place, nor is it possible to trace it back to a specific partner. Thus, in a monogamous relationship, an HPV diagnosis may simply mean that the affected person acquired the infection at a certain point earlier in their life.9

Will Using Condoms Ensure You of Being HPV-Free?

Another myth that many people believe about HPV is that wearing condoms may be sufficient to protect against this illness. While this type of contraceptive may truly be effective for STIs that spread through body fluids, they actually offer less protection for STIs that are transmitted via skin-to-skin contact. For example, herpes is a type of STI wherein condoms may have less protective benefits.

The reason is that condoms do not cover the whole genital region of either males or females. The anus, vulva, perineal region, base of the penis and scrotum are still uncovered, allowing the virus to be transmitted.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that condoms are entirely useless. Using them can lower your risk of acquiring the infection, as well as reduce the risk of other related illnesses like HIV and unplanned pregnancies.10 Thus, using condoms may still offer some level of protection during sexual intercourse, albeit it's not a foolproof solution.11

MORE ABOUT HPV

HPV: Introduction

What Is HPV?

Oral HPV

How Is HPV Transmitted?

HPV Vaccine

HPV in Men

HPV in Women

HPV Types

HPV Causes

HPV Symptoms

HPV Warts

HPV Treatment

HPV Test

How to Get Rid of HPV

Living with HPV

Does HPV Go Away?

How Do You Get HPV?

Is HPV Curable?

Is HPV Contagious?

How Long Does HPV Last?

HPV FAQ

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