Human papillomavirus (HPV) spreads through skin-to-skin contact. People with the infection can transmit the virus during sexual activities, but they can also spread it during regular contact with skin carrying the infection.

HPV is a widespread viral infection with over 200 subtypes. Most are harmless, but some forms of HPV cause growths or warts on the skin and mucous membranes. Certain high risk strains of HPV are responsible for many cervical cancer cases. Experts also link HPV to anal, penile, oropharyngeal, vulval and vaginal cancers.

HPV spreads primarily through skin-to-skin or skin-to-mucosa contact. Sexual contact is the most common way of contracting an infection, but it can also spread through nonsexual contact, including during childbirth.

Understanding how to contract and prevent HPV is essential for health protection. This article looks at HPV transmission, symptoms to look out for, and prevention.

Black and white image of two people touching fingertipsShare on Pinterest
Tatiana Maksimova/Getty Images

HPV most often spreads through direct skin-to-skin contact. This contact often occurs during sexual activity, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

However, people with HPV can also spread the infection through nonsexual means. This could include hand-to-genital contact or through contaminated objects such as sex toys or shared personal items.

Individuals can also transmit the infection from one place to another on their bodies.

Vertical transmission from a birthing person to their baby is also possible. An infection could theoretically occur through the amniotic fluid or placenta or by contact with maternal genital mucosa during natural birth.

Learn more about HPV.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

Was this helpful?

HPV can spread between people of all genders. It usually targets the delicate tissues of the genital and oral mucous membranes. Tiny cuts or tears in the skin or mucous membranes provide an entry point for the virus to access the body. It is then able to establish an infection.

Research shows that males are overall more likely to develop HPV than females. They are also more likely to have high risk HPV strains that can cause cancer.

These infections often present as warts around the genitals and anus, which increase HPV transmission rates. They can also cause penile and anal cancers and cancers at the back of the throat, which doctors call oropharyngeal cancers.

Experts disagree about the effects of male circumcision on HPV transmission. Traditionally, they suggested the practice reduced transmission rates, but recent studies have found little evidence of an association between male circumcision and HPV infection prevalence or transmission.

Learn more about HPV in males and females.

HPV often causes no symptoms and goes away by itself. However, if the infection remains, it can cause genital warts or certain kinds of cancer.

People need to look out for the following on their genitals or in their mouth:

  • warts
  • sores
  • growths
  • lumps

Females may find out if they have HPV by following up with a doctor if they receive an atypical result from a Pap smear during a cervical cancer screening.

Learn more about what HPV looks like.

In females ages 18–59, around 4 in 10 have a low risk HPV infection, and 2 in 10 have a high risk HPV infection that has links to cancer. The highest infection rates are among sexually active individuals under 25. Healthcare professionals have identified higher infection rates among those with:

  • a higher number of sexual partners
  • a lower education level
  • a lower income level
  • smoking history

A 2023 study found that around 1 in 3 males over 15 have at least one HPV subtype, and 1 in 5 have a high risk subtype that experts connect with cancer.

Read more about high risk HPV.

HPV vaccination is highly effective in preventing infection with the most common high risk HPV strains.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends HPV vaccination for all children ages 11 or 12. It is a two-dose schedule that healthcare professionals administer 6 to 12 months apart.

Correctly using a condom or other barrier method during sexual activity can also reduce the risk of HPV transmission. However, condoms may not provide complete protection, as they do not cover all skin or mucous membranes that could carry the infection.

Individuals can speak with a healthcare professional about preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

There is no blood test for HPV. Instead, healthcare professionals take cells from the cervix during a Pap smear. They send the cells to a laboratory to look for HPV or changes to the cells that could become cancerous without treatment.

Females ages 21–65 should have routine screening for cervical cancer every 3 years.

There are currently no approved screening tests for HPV in males. However, some healthcare professionals may offer anal Pap tests to those at greater risk for anal cancer, including people with HIV or who receive anal sex.

There is no specific antiviral treatment for HPV itself. Treatment often focuses on managing symptoms, such as genital warts, or addressing precancerous cervical changes. Advanced HPV-related cancers may require more aggressive treatments such as surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.

The following are answers to some questions people frequently ask about HPV.

Can people transmit HPV non-sexually?

Yes, individuals can spread HPV through nonsexual contact via hand contact with skin or mucous membranes with the infection.

What causes HPV in females?

HPV in females is primarily the result of sexual contact with a partner who has HPV. However, nonsexual transmission routes also exist.

Is it typical to contract HPV?

HPV is common, and nearly all sexually active people contract the virus at some point in their lives.

Sexual health resources

Visit our dedicated hub for more research-backed information and in-depth resources on sexual health.

Was this helpful?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus with various strains, some of which can lead to health complications such as genital warts and cancers.

HPV spreads through skin-to-skin contact, often during sexual activities.

HPV infections can go unnoticeable as they often cause no symptoms. However, prevention through vaccination, safe sexual practices, and regular screenings are crucial for reducing the risk of associated health issues.