Can you still be sexually active with HPV?

Updated on October 16, 2023. Previously published on September 18, 2020.

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If you were recently diagnosed with HPV (human papillomavirus), it’s normal to have a lot of questions. HPV is very common and affects millions of people each year, but misinformation and a tendency to avoid discussing STIs can leave some people feeling confused about their diagnosis.

You might be wondering: can you still be sexually active with HPV? Is HPV contagious even with protection?

While your healthcare provider can offer the best advice, it’s possible for most people with HPV to have protected sex as long as they take the right precautions against HPV transmission. We’ll walk through some key factors to consider and provide useful strategies to reduce the risk of spreading the HPV virus.

What is HPV?

In the United States, HPV, or human papillomavirus is incredibly common. In fact, most sexually active people will get HPV at least once in their lives. It’s spread through oral, vaginal, and anal sex with an infected partner.

If you’re wondering, “Can you get HPV without having sex?” the answer is yes. The virus can also spread through skin-to-skin contact. [1]

Fortunately, it’s very common for a genital HPV infection to be asymptomatic and resolve on its own. In 90% of cases, this will occur.2 Those without symptoms likely have a low-risk HPV strain (types 6, 11, 42, 43, and 44). In 10% of cases, however, people infected with even low-risk strains of the virus may experience such HPV symptoms as [1]:

  • Genital warts – These flat, cauliflower-like lesions can appear on the vulva, cervix, or in the vagina in people with female reproductive organs. For people who are assigned male at birth (AMAB), genital warts can arise on the penis, scrotum, or anus. Oftentimes a genital wart is not painful, but it may itch. [2]
  • Common warts – Appearing on the hands and fingers, common warts are often bumpy, rough, and painful. [2]
  • Plantar warts – Located on the feet, plantar warts are hard and grainy. Because they appear on the balls and heels of the feet, they can cause discomfort when walking.
  • Flat warts – While these types of warts can appear all over the body, they’re most likely to exist on the faces of men and children. In women, they’re often found on the legs.

Infection of high-risk HPV in women (types 16, 18, 31, 33, 34, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, 66, 68, and 70) can cause cervical cancer in people assigned female at birth (AFAB). In fact, HPV causes about 95% of cervical cancer cases. People with cervical cancer will often experience [3]:

  • Vaginal bleeding after intercourse or between periods
  • Heavy or long-lasting menstrual bleeding
  • Bloody vaginal discharge that may be odorous
  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during intercourse

While cervical cancer can be prevented through vaccinations, it’s still the fourth most common cancer in people AFAB worldwide. High-risk HPV types can also lead to oropharyngeal cancer, a cancer of the throat, tongue, and/or tonsils, which can occur after having sex with an infected sexual partner. [3]

Is Safe Sex Possible With HPV?

Most people come into contact with HPV at least once in their lifetime, and many never know it. [1]

Are you wondering, “Can I have sex with HPV?” Because HPV is common and most infections clear on their own without causing any health effects, it’s generally safe to keep having sex as long as you take the necessary precautions. [1]

However, you should talk to your healthcare provider first if you are newly diagnosed. If you have genital warts, they might recommend waiting to have sex until they clear up to prevent spreading the virus through skin-to-skin contact.

That said, when having sex with HPV, you should still take extra precautions to reduce the risk of transmission before resuming sexual activity. These include telling current and future partners that you have HPV and using condoms or other barrier-protection methods correctly each time you have sex. It’s possible to spread HPV even if you aren’t showing symptoms, and you or your partner can get it without knowing it.

Is HPV Contagious Forever?

Most cases of HPV clear up on their own after one to two years, and you’ll no longer be contagious once it leaves your system. [4]

However, the virus can remain dormant for years, and some people experience infections that stick around for much longer. Even if the virus is dormant and you aren’t experiencing any symptoms, it’s still possible to spread it to other people. [4]

How To Keep Yourself and Your Partner Safe

HPV can often go undetected, so it’s important to take the proper steps to protect yourself and others. To help prevent transmission and ensure that you understand the risks, consider the following tips:

Learn How HPV Spreads

An excellent way to prevent infection is to learn how HPV spreads. Sexually-transmitted HPV can spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex or close skin-to-skin contact. Even if you use barrier protection and aren’t showing any symptoms, it’s still possible to become infected or spread HPV to a partner. [1]

Talk to Your Healthcare Provider

If you are sexually active or suspect that you might have HPV, you should schedule an appointment to speak with your healthcare provider. They can recommend STI testing options and go over potential treatments if you are experiencing any health effects. Even if you aren’t showing any signs of the virus, your healthcare provider can provide additional information on signs and symptoms and how to reduce the risk of spreading or contracting HPV.

If you have genital warts, for example, they may recommend procedures that can help clear them up sooner or suggest that you wait to have sex until they have healed. Some healthcare providers may also prescribe medication to eradicate the warts.

While HPV is usually asymptomatic, they may go over possible health effects including genital warts, common warts, and, in rare cases, cancers affecting the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus, or back of the throat.

Most people’s immune systems can clear high-risk HPV infections before they cause cancer, which, in addition to cervical and oropharyngeal cancer, can include anal, penile, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. [5]

In the United States, research has found that HPV causes roughly 3% of all cancers in women and 2% of cancers in men. However, these numbers increase when studied worldwide, rising to about 5%. Cervical cancer, specifically, is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in countries of low or middle incomes. [5]

That said, you should tell your healthcare provider if you smoke, have been diagnosed with HIV, or take any medications that suppress your immune system. Having a weakened immune system could put you at a higher risk of developing precancers from high-risk HPV infections. [5]

Be Honest With Your Partner

Conversations about STIs aren’t always fun, but they are important. If you’ve been diagnosed with HPV or suspect you have it, informing past and current partners can help them understand the risks and pursue testing and treatment options if necessary. To help avoid confusion and ensure that these conversations go as smoothly as possible, consider doing some research and planning ahead of time.

It’s important to remember that having HPV doesn’t mean that you or your partner was reckless or unfaithful. The virus can remain dormant in the body for years, and it’s very difficult to know when the initial infection occurred. In fact, you could still spread or contract HPV even if you’re in a monogamous relationship. [1]

If your partner tells you that they tested positive for an STI or has symptoms, try to remain as respectful and understanding as possible. By telling you, they are showing that they care and want to prioritize your health and well-being. Try to remain open to these conversations and work with your partner to find a solution that works for both of you.

Use Barrier Protection Correctly Every Time

Using barrier protection like condoms and dental dams can reduce the risk of spreading HPV during vaginal, anal, and oral sex. They are less effective if broken or used incorrectly, so it’s important to learn how they work and check for defects before using them. [1]

HPV can also affect areas not covered by condoms or dental dams, so they don’t completely eliminate the risk. [1]

Get The HPV Vaccine

The CDC recommends that everyone ages 11 to 26 receive the HPV vaccine, commonly called Gardasil 9.5 This vaccine is designed to protect against high-risk strains of HPV and those that cause genital warts, including HPV types 16 and 18.6 It’s also important to note that although vaccines can prevent the HPV virus, they cannot cure it. [5]

Since healthcare providers first recommended the vaccine in 2006, HPV infections caused by high-risk strains and types that cause genital warts have dropped 81 percent among young adult women. [6]

Healthcare providers recommend that children between the ages of 11 and 12 receive two doses of the vaccine six to 12 months apart. While children can wait until they’re older to get vaccinated, it’s best to do it as early as possible. HPV vaccination ensures that they are protected when they become sexually active later on. [5]

People ages 15 to 26 who haven’t yet been vaccinated will need three doses spread out over 6 months instead of two. Even if you’ve already contracted HPV, the vaccine can still protect against strains you haven’t been exposed to yet. [5]

The vaccine is also available to older adults, aged 27 to 45, who never received the vaccine while they were young. However, since this age group has likely already been exposed to HPV, the vaccine is less likely to be effective compared to other groups. In this case, it’s advised to speak to your healthcare provider to identify whether or not the HPV vaccine will benefit you. [5]

If you are pregnant, healthcare providers recommend waiting to get the vaccine or any additional doses until after you have given birth. While studies suggest that the HPV vaccine does not harm unborn babies, additional research is needed to rule out potential complications entirely. [7]

Schedule Regular HPV and Pap Tests

There are currently no testing options for people AMAB (assigned male at birth) or HPV affecting the mouth and throat. However, there are tests that can detect strains of HPV that could cause cervical cancer and precancerous cells in the cervix. If you’re unsure how to test for HPV, consult with your healthcare provider.

If you have a cervix, healthcare providers recommend scheduling Pap tests every three years starting at age 21. Healthcare providers perform this test by collecting surface cells from the cervix with a small brush and testing them for abnormal or cancerous cells. If your results come back abnormal, they can schedule further testing and recommend early treatment options if necessary. [8]

People ages 30 to 65 who have a cervix can also schedule HPV tests that look for the strains that cause cervical cancer. The procedure for this test is almost identical to a Pap smear, and you can get both tests at the same time.7 If you choose to co-test and your results come back normal, your healthcare provider may recommend getting tested every five years instead of three. [9]

People who have a cervix and prefer to test from home can order an at-home HPV test that comes with a vaginal swab and collection instructions. This test is capable of detecting 14 genotypes of high-risk HPV and can specify if an infection is caused by HPV 16 or HPV 18/45. If your test results come back abnormal, you should follow up with a medical professional for further advice.

Most cases of HPV clear on their own without causing any adverse health effects. [1] So, can you have sex with HPV? Yes—as long as you take the proper precautions and communicate with your partner, it’s possible to remain sexually active and have healthy intimate relationships with HPV.

If you have any questions or concerns about HPV or other STIs, you can always schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider to discuss risk factors, treatments, and STI testing options.

  1. Published April 12, 2022. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  2. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published July 22, 2021. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  3. Cervical Cancer. WHO. Published February 22, 2022. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  4. Cleveland Clinic. Published December 14, 2021. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  5. HPV and Cancer. National Cancer Institute. Published April 4, 2023. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  6. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know. centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published November 16, 2021. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  7. HPV Vaccine Information for Young Women. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. PublishedApril 18, 2022. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  8. How Often Do I Need a Pap Smear? Johns Hopkins Medicine. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  9. What Should I Know About Screening? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published August 21, 2023. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  10. PV Vaccine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published August 16, 2023. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
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