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Can you get HPV without having sex?

Medically reviewed on October 19, 2022 by Amy Harris, MS, RN, CNM. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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Although HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., you may have heard of people contracting HPV without ever having sexual intercourse or sexual contact with another person. [1] This begs the question, can you get HPV without having sex?

The short answer is yes. You can contract HPV through non-sexual exposure. This means that anyone can contract HPV, from babies to adults. [2] However, knowing the different ways you can get HPV and how to diagnose and treat HPV when it occurs can help put your mind at ease about your risk for HPV.

In this guide, we’ll discuss how HPV infection can spread sexually and non-sexually, the HPV treatment options, and the steps you can take to prevent infection or accidentally spreading HPV to others.

How HPV spreads

Typically, HPV spreads through close skin-to-skin contact with an infected person or close skin-to-mucosa contact with an infected person. Mucosa is the moist inner lining of your mouth, throat, and reproductive organs like the vulva, vagina, and penis. However, as stated above, HPV can spread through either sexual or non-sexual HPV transmission. Here’s how...

Sexual transmission

You can catch sexually-transmitted HPV from an infected individual through:

  • Vaginal sex
  • Oral sex
  • Anal sex
  • Use of sex toys
  • Any close skin-to-skin contact that can occur during various sexual acts

You can reduce your risk factors for HPV—and your risk of infecting your partner—by using a condom, dental dams, and latex or nitrile gloves. While using these barrier methods will not prevent HPV transmission one hundred percent of the time, they do reduce risk.

HPV Vaccines Keep You Safe From HPV

Getting the HPV vaccine between 11-12 years old, even before starting sexual activity, is crucial in reducing transmission, whether through sexual contact or not. Since the CDC first recommended HPV vaccination in 2006, infections with HPV types that cause most HPV cancers and genital warts have dropped 88 percent among teen girls and 81 percent among young adult women. Other good news about the vaccine is that its protection lasts for at least 12 years (as long as the study followed participants).

Older children and teenagers can get “catch-up” HPV vaccines up until age 27, when it is estimated that you most likely have already been exposed to HPV and would not benefit from vaccination, according to public health experts. [3]

It’s important to note that there are over 200 types of HPV viruses, but they all fall into one of two categories:

  • High-risk – These types of genital HPV can change the make-up of your cells in ways that increase your risk of certain cancers, including cancers of the cervix, oropharynx (mouth, throat, and neck), anus, penis, vagina, and vulva.
  • Low-risk – These types of HPV won’t cause cancer, but they may cause HPV warts or lesions, especially around the mouth, throat, genitals, or anus.

Does HPV go away?

Now, you may be wondering, does HPV go away? Yes, it can. Most HPV infections have no symptoms and go away within two years without treatment. If you don’t experience symptoms, you may never know whether or not you’ve been infected—unless you take an HPV test that can screen for cervical cancer. Healthcare providers only use these tests for screening women aged 30 years and older. HPV tests are not recommended for adolescents or women under the age of 30 years. Talk with your provider about possible anal screening for HPV-related cancer or other STDs if you are a man having sex with men or having anal sex and have HIV or another condition impacting your immune system. [4]

Non-sexual transmission

Having close contact with someone with the HPV virus or touching something recently handled with bodily fluids from an HPV-infected person can spread the HPV virus. Non-sexual HPV transmission happens most commonly through skin-to-skin or skin-to-mucosa (thin tissues). For example, if a person with a wart on their finger touches another person, they could spread the HPV virus.

The transmission risk increases if the other person has an open wound, like a scrape or paper cut. This is one reason warts are more common in children, who tend to have more open scratches or wounds. It is also possible to spread warts to different parts of your body by scratching and picking warts and then touching uninfected skin areas such as other fingers, feet, or genitals. Shaving (especially in the pubic area) also spreads warts, making scraped or open skin more likely.

It is difficult for the HPV virus to spread from one surface to another, except for sex toys or sharing other personal items like razors or towels. HPV can be hard to kill with disinfectants. There are some reports of HPV being transmitted through medical equipment that is not thoroughly sterilized, but this is rare, fortunately. A pregnant mother with HPV can transmit the virus to her child through the amniotic fluid or the placenta. It’s also possible for newborns to contract the virus during delivery as they pass through the birth canal.

The type of HPV that causes genital warts is spread only through sexual contact. In other words, you can’t get genital warts if someone with a wart on their hand or finger touches your genitals.

If someone in your household develops a wart, you limit the spread of warts among family members by covering the wart with a bandage and treating the wart until it is gone. Encourage all family members to clean their hands regularly. Make sure to disinfect cuts, keeping them clean, dry, and bandaged.

Treating HPV

While an HPV infection can clear up by itself, this isn’t always the case, so if you have symptoms—like warts or suspicious bumps on your genitals, it’s best to seek treatment.

Depending on warts’ location, size, appearance, and any other medical conditions you might have, your healthcare provider may recommend several different options for treatment.

Wart removal medications

In cases where HPV has caused visible warts, you can apply wart removal medication directly to the wart. Your healthcare provider may recommend the following:

  • Over-the-counter medications, like salicylic acid for non-genital warts– Salicylic acid works on warts on your feet and hands by removing a few layers of the wart each time you apply it. Genital skin is much thinner and more sensitive than the thicker skin on your fingers and feet, so you should never use over-the-counter wart treatment medications on genital HPV warts.
  • Provider-applied trichloroacetic acid (TCA) – TCA can be used to treat warts on the palms of your hand, the soles of your feet, or your genital area, but it is not sold over the counter and is applied by a healthcare provider. STIs such as herpes or syphilis can cause sores in the genital areas that may look similar to warts. Seeking a correct diagnosis (and treatment) from a health care provider can help ensure you’re taking the best care of yourself.
  • Prescription medications, like Imiquimod and Podofilox – Imiquimod is a prescription cream that can enhance your immune system’s ability to fight HPV, while Podofilox can help destroy genital wart tissue.
  • Sinecatechins (Veregen) – This prescription-only cream treats external genital warts, especially warts around the anal canal. Side effects, such as reddening of the skin, itching or burning, and pain, are often mild.

It’s not unusual for wart treatments to cause irritation or itching where applied. However, side effects can vary by medication, so talk to your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about potential side effects.

Wart removal procedures

Healthcare providers typically try to remove warts with medication first. However, if the medication doesn’t prove effective, they may turn to other wart removal options, such as: [5]

  • Surgery – Your healthcare provider may attempt to remove a wart either through manual surgical removal or laser surgery. They will use local anesthesia to numb the area around the wart. In most cases, this can be done in your healthcare provider’s office in an outpatient procedure.
  • Burning – Your healthcare provider may try to burn the wart off by applying an electrical current to the wart, a procedure known as electrocautery.
  • Freezing – Your healthcare provider may freeze the wart off by applying liquid nitrogen to the wart, a procedure known as cryotherapy.

Although HPV warts may resolve on their own (in some cases), they can also stay or even multiply, so it’s best to reach out to your healthcare provider as soon as you notice warts. This way, you can discuss treatment options promptly. Treatment options are different for internal HPV lesions, such as precancerous changes in the cells of the throat, mouth, tongue, cervix, penis, or anus.

Cancer prevention treatment

If your HPV test or Pap smear test results indicate you may be at risk for cervical cancer, your healthcare provider will likely perform a procedure called a colposcopy. This procedure involves taking samples from the area around your cervix and testing them for potential signs of cancer. Anoscopy is the procedure to look for precancerous changes in the anus caused by HPV. [6]

Your provider may need to remove any precancerous lesions on your cervix, in your vagina, on your vulva, on your penis, or in your anus. Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) is the procedure used to remove and treat precancerous and cancerous tissue on the cervix. [7]

For precancerous warts in areas besides the cervix, treatments may include:

  • Topical medicines
  • Cryosurgery
  • Surgical excisions
  • Laser therapy

Once HPV-related cancer develops, cancer treatment generally looks the same for patients who develop non-HPV-related tumors at the same site, usually with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Identifying HPV

It can be challenging to determine whether or not you have HPV. This is because the virus can live in your system for years without having symptoms. Not to mention, there is no test to check your “HPV status” per se.

Instead, healthcare providers currently identify HPV by:

  • Visual assessment of warts –Different types of HPV can result in flat warts, plantar warts, common warts, and genital warts.
  • Pap test – If you have a cervix and a high-risk strain of HPV, it could cause precancerous changes in the cells of your cervix. Pap tests can help identify precancerous cells in the area. While vaginal Pap tests are more commonly recommended for cisgender women and trans men, a healthcare provider may also recommend an anal Pap test for people who frequently receive anal sex outside a mutually monogamous relationship.
  • HPV test – While there’s currently no CDC-approved HPV testing for individuals assigned male at birth, there is one for individuals assigned female at birth. The Everlywell HPV Test can screen for the high-risk HPV genotypes types most commonly associated with cervical cancer, specifically HPV 16 and HPV 18/45. Available for purchase online, our at-home test makes protecting yourself against cervical cancer easier and more accessible. If your results indicate HPV, we strongly recommend reaching out to your healthcare provider for an HPV treatment plan and follow-up Pap smear as soon as possible.

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends people with a cervix have their first Pap test at age 21. For people with a cervix older than 30 years, screening can include FDA-cleared tests for high-risk, cancer-causing types of HPV. Annual cervical cancer screening (nor HPV screening) is not recommended for persons at average risk. Instead, Pap smear testing is recommended every three years for persons aged 21–29 years. For persons aged 30–65 years, a cytology test every three years, an HPV test alone every five years, or a cytology test plus an HPV test (cotest) every five years is recommended. [8]

There are no current guidelines for regular or routine anal screening for people of either gender having anal intercourse. Talk with your healthcare provider honestly about the number of partners you have, the types of sexual intercourse you have, and any symptoms or risk factors you might have to determine the best HPV screening program for you.

Fight back against HPV with Everlywell

At Everlywell, we’re proud to offer a range of at-home health tests that make it easy for you to take control of your sexual and physical health. With discreet packaging, you can get the information you need in the privacy and comfort of your own home.

We also process all of our clinically-validated tests in CLIA-certified laboratories, which means they meet or exceed federal standards for precision, validity, and accuracy. Plus, our experienced clinical team oversees every stage of the testing process.

As we’ve grown, we’ve continued to develop more ways to support your health needs. Whether you’re wondering about HPV, HIV, Hepatitis C, or other STDs, we can help you find the answers—and peace of mind—you’re looking for. Reach out to us today to learn more.

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HPV risk factors and prevention for men and women

Can HPV cause infertility?

UTI vs. STD: Differences in symptoms

  1. Sexually Transmitted Infections Prevalence, Incidence, and Cost Estimates in the United States. CDC. Published January 25, 2021. URL. Accessed October 12, 2022.
  2. Petca A, Borislavschi A, Zvanca ME, Petca RC, Sandru F, Dumitrascu MC. Non-sexual HPV transmission and role of vaccination for a better future (Review). Exp Ther Med. 2020;20(6):186. doi:10.3892/etm.2020.9316. Accessed October 12, 2022.
  3. Human Papilloma Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know. CDC. Updated November 16, 2021. URL. Accessed October 12, 2022.
  4. Std Facts - Human papillomavirus (HPV). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published April 12, 2022. Accessed October 12, 2022.
  5. Common warts. Mayo Clinic. Updated April 30, 2022. URL. Accessed October 12, 2022.
  6. Colposcopy. MedlinePlus. Updated September 16, 2021. URL. Accessed October 12, 2022.
  7. Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP) FAQs. ACOG. Reviewed July 2021. URL. Accessed October 12, 2022.
  8. Sexually Transmitted Infections Treatment Guidelines, 2021. HPV-Associated Cancers and Pre-cancers. CDC. Updated July 22, 2021. URL. Accessed October 12, 2022.
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