The short answer is maybe.
No studies have shown a definitive link between kissing and contracting human papillomavirus (HPV).
However, some research does suggest that open-mouth kissing could make HPV transmission more likely.
Kissing isn’t considered a common means of HPV transmission, but more research is needed before we can completely rule out the possibility.
So what does that mean for you and your partners? Let’s dig more into the research to find out.
We know for sure that oral sex can transmit HPV.
But in these studies, it’s hard to separate kissing from other intimate behaviors. This makes it difficult to determine if it’s the kissing itself, and not other types of contact like oral sex, that transmits the virus.
HPV is passed on through close skin-to-skin contact, so transmission through kissing would look like the virus hitching a ride from one mouth to another.
Studies looking into oral HPV transmission focus on deep kissing, aka French kissing.
That’s because kissing with mouths open and tongues touching exposes you to more skin-to-skin contact than a short peck would.
Some STIs can definitely spread through kissing, and for some of those, the risk of transmission goes up when the kiss is open-mouthed.
The research on HPV and kissing is still ongoing.
So far, some of the research suggests a link, but none of it has conclusively produced a “yes” or “no” answer.
The studies done so far have been small or inconclusive — enough to indicate that we need more research.
HPV is passed through skin-to-skin contact, not through bodily fluids.
Sharing drinks, utensils, and other items with saliva is very unlikely to transmit the virus.
There are a few things you can do to reduce your risk, including:
- Be informed. The more you know about what HPV is and how it’s transmitted, the more you can avoid situations in which you might transmit or contract it.
- Practice safe sex. Using condoms or dental dams during oral sex can reduce your risk of transmission.
- Get tested. You and your partner(s) should get tested regularly for STIs. Anyone with a cervix should also get regular Pap smears. This increases your chances of detecting an infection early and preventing transmission.
- Communicate. Talk to your partner(s) about your sexual histories and other partners you may have, so that you know if anyone could be at risk.
- Limit your number of sexual partners. Generally speaking, having more sexual partners can increase your chances of coming into contact with HPV.
If you do contract HPV, there’s no reason to be ashamed.
Almost everyone who’s sexually active —
This includes people who’ve only had one sexual partner, people who’ve more than a few, and everyone in between.
The HPV vaccine can help reduce your risk of contracting the strains most likely to cause certain cancers or warts.
Newer research also suggests that the vaccine can help reduce your risk of contracting oral HPV, specifically.
One study showed oral HPV infections at an 88 percent lower rate among young adults who got at least one dose of the HPV vaccine.
HPV is transmitted through close skin-to-skin contact.
You can’t get much closer than vaginal and anal sex, so those are the most common methods of transmission.
Oral sex is the next most common form of transmission.
No, you’re more likely to contract HPV through penetrative action like vaginal and anal sex than through oral sex.
In rare cases, oral HPV can cause cells to grow abnormally and turn into cancer.
Oropharyngeal cancer can develop in the mouth, tongue, and throat.
The cancer itself is rare, but about two-thirds of oropharyngeal cancers have HPV DNA in them.
If you do contract HPV, there’s a chance that you’ll never know it.
It usually occurs without symptoms, and in most cases will clear up on its own.
If the infection persists, you might notice bumps on your genitals or mouth or have an abnormal Pap smear that shows precancerous cells.
These symptoms may not develop until several years after exposure.
This means that unless a recent partner tells you that they contracted HPV, you probably won’t know that you’ve been exposed.
That’s why it’s important for you and your partners to get regular health screenings.
Early detection allows you to take precautions to minimize transmission, as well as treat any related side effects or complications.
For cisgender women and anyone else with a cervix, HPV is usually diagnosed after a Pap smear produces an abnormal result.
Your provider may order a second Pap smear to confirm the original result or move straight to a cervical HPV test.
With this test, your provider will test cells from your cervix specifically for HPV.
If they detect a type that may be cancerous, they may perform a colposcopy to look for lesions and other abnormalities on the cervix.
Your provider can also examine any bumps that appear on the mouth, genitals, or anus to determine if they’re HPV-related warts.
Your provider may recommend or perform an anal Pap smear, especially if you develop anal warts or other unusual symptoms.
For cisgender men and other people assigned male at birth, there’s not currently a test for HPV.
In the majority of cases —
When HPV doesn’t go away on its own, it can cause problems like genital warts and cancer.
The types of HPV that cause genital warts aren’t the same strains that cause cancer, so getting warts doesn’t mean you have cancer.
While there’s no treatment for the virus itself, your provider will probably recommend coming in for tests more often to monitor the infection and watch for abnormal cell growth.
They can treat any HPV-related complications, including warts and abnormal cell growth.
Genital warts, for example, are often treated with prescription medications, burned off with an electrical current, or frozen off with liquid nitrogen.
However, because this doesn’t get rid of the virus itself, there’s a chance that the warts will come back.
Your provider can remove precancerous cells and treat HPV-related cancers through chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.
It seems pretty unlikely that you’ll contract or transmit HPV just by kissing, but we don’t know for sure if it’s completely impossible.
Your best bet is to practice safe sex so that you can avoid genital-to-genital and genital-to-mouth transmission.
You should also keep up with your regular health screenings to make sure you’re aware of any other underlying medical concerns.
Staying informed and in open communication with your partners can help free you up to have fun locking lips without having to worry.
Maisha Z. Johnson is a writer and advocate for survivors of violence, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities. She lives with chronic illness and believes in honoring each person’s unique path to healing. Find Maisha on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.