Human papillomavirus (HPV) is highly contagious, spreading through direct skin-to-skin contact, especially during sexual activity. But not everyone exposed to it will develop symptoms or an infection.

HPV primarily spreads through skin-to-skin or mucous membrane contact, with sexual contact being the most common route.

It may also be transmissible through objects, fingers, and general skin contact. Self-infection is also possible. It occurs when the virus spreads from one part of your body to another.

HPV can also pass from pregnant people to newborns during childbirth. Although some experts found HPV in water, there’s no conclusive evidence of waterborne transmission.

A 2021 study showed that in 2018, approximately 40% of the U.S. population ages 15 to 59 had an HPV infection, with males (41.8%) having a higher frequency than females (38.4%). The researchers found disease-associated HPV infections in 24.2% of males and 19.9% of females.

HPV is primarily transmissible through direct skin-to-skin contact, often during sexual activity. Specific acts that can transmit HPV include:

  • Genital-to-genital contact: This can include vulvar, vaginal, anal, and penile contact.
  • Oral-genital contact: The transmission may be mouth-to-vulva, mouth-to-penis, and mouth-to-anus contact.
  • Hand-genital contact: It involves touching your genitals with hands that touch an area of infection.
  • Vertical transmission: In this case, HPV can spread from birthing person to baby during delivery, although it’s less common.
  • Contact with surfaces or objects: It’s not as usual, but the virus can spread by touching surfaces or objects that have the virus on them.
  • Self-infection: The virus can also spread from one part of your body to another by touching a wart or area of infection and another body part.

HPV can also be transmissible even when a person carrying the virus has no visible symptoms.

Reducing your chance of contracting HPV involves several strategies. The HPV vaccine can decrease the chance of cervical cancer. Many experts recommend it for people of any sex, gender, or anatomy.

Doctors may usually give the HPV vaccine to preteens, teens, and young adults to help prevent HPV-related diseases later in life. The vaccine tends to be most effective when given before someone becomes sexually active and experiences exposure to the virus. However, it can still be beneficial for those who are sexually active.

Condoms and other barrier methods, such as dental dams and Lorals underwear, can also help reduce the chance of HPV transmission, although they’re often not as effective as the vaccine. Regular screenings and open communication with sexual partners can also help manage and reduce the chance of HPV transmission.

To reduce the chance of HPV transmitting to others, you can:

  • Get vaccinated: If you’re eligible, vaccinating against HPV can reduce the chance of HPV spreading to others.
  • Use barrier methods: Condoms and dental dams can help reduce the chance of HPV transmission, although they may not completely reduce it.
  • Communicate with your partner: If you’re aware of your HPV status or have visible warts, talk with your partner about your status and ask whether they’ve received the vaccine. This knowledge can help both of you make informed decisions about your sexual health.
  • Regular screening: Regular Pap smears and HPV tests can help detect HPV-related changes early, reducing the chance of transmitting the virus to others.
  • Avoid sexual activity during outbreaks: If you have visible warts, avoiding sexual activity until the warts receive treatment and disappear can reduce the chance of transmission.

Consult with a doctor or another healthcare professional if you have:

  • Symptoms of HPV-related diseases: It’s a good idea for a healthcare professional to evaluate symptoms such as genital warts, atypical vaginal bleeding, or persistent pelvic pain.
  • Concerns about HPV: If you have concerns about HPV, such as questions about transmission, vaccination, or testing, discuss them with a healthcare professional.
  • Sexual health concerns: If you have concerns about your sexual health or symptoms that concern you, get medical advice.
  • Atypical Pap smear results: Your healthcare professional may recommend further testing or follow-up if you have atypical Pap smear results.

If you suspect HPV but don’t have a regular healthcare professional, consider contacting a community health clinic, local health department, or organization like Planned Parenthood for sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing and guidance on HPV. Telemedicine services and some pharmacies also offer options for consultation and testing.