Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a viral infection that’s spread by skin to skin contact. About 80 million Americans are estimated to have HPV. It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI).

It’s so common that most people who are sexually active will get HPV at some point and not realize they have it. That’s because most types of HPV — there are more than 100 — don’t show any symptoms and go away without needing treatment.

HPV, like most viruses, goes through a dormancy period where it doesn’t cause any symptoms inside or outside the body. Some types of HPV can be dormant for years before someone develops symptoms or finds out they have it.

HPV can lay dormant for many years after a person contracts the virus, even if symptoms never occur.

Most cases of HPV clear within 1 to 2 years as the immune system fights off and eliminates the virus from the body. After that, the virus disappears and it can’t be transmitted to other people.

In extreme cases, HPV may lay dormant in the body for many years or even decades. During this time, the virus is always reproducing within cells, and it can spread even if there are no symptoms.

This is also why it’s possible to test positive for HPV even if it has been dormant for years.

Getting tested is crucial because it’s possible to transmit HPV from one partner to all partners for a decade or more.

HPV can spread easily when partners have sex without a condom or other barrier method, even if the virus is dormant. This is because the viral material still lives inside the cells in the area where the virus was contracted.

During sexual activity, a partner may be directly exposed to these cells, which can then pass the viral material into their bodies.

Here are some risk factors for HPV:

  • How old you are. If you have HPV when you’re young, you’ll probably have regular warts. Genital warts tend to happen when you’re a teenager or young adult.
  • A weak immune system. If your immune system is weakened from illness, conditions like HIV, or immunosuppressant medications, you may be more likely to contract and transmit HPV.
  • Skin damage. Warts are more likely to occur where skin has been cut open or injured.
  • Touching infected surfaces. Touching a wart or a surface that HPV has come into contact with, like a pool or shower, can increase likelihood of infection.

Complications of HPV

If HPV is present or dormant, complications may occur. Possible complications include:

  • Transmission to children. It’s rare but possible to spread HPV to children when they’re born. A 2016 study suggests that around 11 percent of children of HPV-positive mothers also had HPV, but the research isn’t conclusive.
  • Cancer. Certain types of HPV may increase your risk of certain cancers, such as penile or cervical cancer.

Not everything you read online or from others is true. Here are some myths about HPV that you shouldn’t believe:

  • Someone can’t get HPV if their sexual partner doesn’t have symptoms. Symptoms don’t need to be present to contract the virus.
  • HPV can’t be transmitted through sex between two people with vulvas. It can be transmitted from any sexual activity or exchange of fluids.
  • You can’t have HPV if you don’t have symptoms. You can still have the virus, it just might be dormant.
  • A condom prevents the spread of dormant HPV. While uncommon, HPV may still spread, especially if a condom or other barrier method isn’t used correctly.
  • HPV only affects people with vulvas. It affects people of all sexes. In some studies, people with penises were more likely to have HPV.

Here’s how to prevent the spread of HPV:

  • Get vaccinated. The CDC recommends that adolescents receive the vaccine around age 11 or 12, or before you become sexually active. You can still get the vaccine until age 45.
  • Use barrier methods whenever you have sex. This includes consistent and correct use of barrier methods such as condoms, dental dams, or anything the protects from direct genital contact.
  • Avoid sex if warts are present. If there’s an active infection, it’s still possible for the virus to spread even if a condom is worn.
  • Don’t share personal items that make contact with genitals. This includes towels.
  • Reduce or avoid smoking. Smoking can actually increase risk of a wart outbreak. Quitting can be difficult, but a doctor can help create a cessation plan that works for you.
  • Tell sexual partners about HPV status before sexual activity. Ask your partners to let you know if they have any STIs. Ideally, get tested before having sex.

HPV can lay dormant for a long time and still spread without symptoms.

Getting tested regularly for STIs is important to prevent the spread of these infections. This should be done whenever you have a new partner or if your partners are having sex with anyone else.

Knowing your HPV status can make sure no complications arise and you prevent its transmission.