Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most commonly transmitted STI in the US, with about 43 million new infections in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But while many people have at least heard of HPV, there’s a little confusion about how, exactly, it’s spread.
There are actually different types of HPV. For most types, the infection will clear on its own, while other types can cause health issues ranging from genital warts to cancer, the CDC reports. “HPV is one of the few viruses we definitely know that is linked to cancer,” says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale Medical School.
That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), CDC, and many other major medical organizations recommend that people get the HPV vaccine between the ages of nine and 26.
Of course, it’s also helpful to know how HPV is spread and whether it goes away on its own if you happen to get it. Here’s the deal.
How Do You Get HPV?
HPV is spread through having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus, the CDC says. It can also be spread through close skin-to-skin touching during sex. The infection occurs when the virus enters the body, often through a cut or abrasion on your skin.
Worth noting, per the CDC: Someone can spread HPV to another person even when they have no symptoms of the infection. Most people with HPV don’t know they have it because it doesn’t present any symptoms.
However, there are about 40 types of HPV that infect the genitals, according to ACOG, which also points out that you can get a genital HPV infection even if you don’t have sex.
Is HPV an STD?
Yes, HPV is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). It’s more commonly referred to as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), but the two terms are often used interchangeably.
If you’re sexually active, you can get the virus even if you’ve had sex with just one person, the CDC says. You can also develop symptoms years after you got HPV, although most people don’t have any signs of infection, ACOG says.
If you have symptoms, they usually show up as genital warts, a small bump, or group of bumps in the genital area, the CDC says.
Does HPV Go Away?
It depends. “HPV is cleared within two years in about 90% of cases,” says Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
The big concern is cases that don’t go away, as those can lead to genital warts and cancer, the CDC says. But again, most people are able to get rid of an HPV infection on their own. “Much of the time—if you have an excellent immune system—it indeed can clear,” says Dr. Minkin.
Can You Get HPV Without Having Sex?
The CDC notes that HPV is usually spread through vaginal or anal sex. It can can also spread via oral sex and through close skin-to-skin touching during sex. But there are also plenty of questions floating around out there about whether you can get HPV from kissing, a toilet seat, or some other route.
Research has shown that HPV can be transmitted through the birth canal to a baby during birth. There is also some evidence that HPV may be spread through deep kissing, but it’s considered rare.
The toilet seat thing, though, is a myth. “It is not transmitted through toilet seats,” Dr. Adalja says. “Nothing really is, despite people’s obsession with saying things are transmitted that way.”
If you’re concerned about your HPV risk, talk to your doctor. They will likely recommend that you get the HPV vaccine, which is approved for all genders, the American Cancer Society (ACS) says. Keep in mind, though, that the vaccine can only be used to prevent an infection — it can’t treat an existing HPV infection. Still, if you’re under 26, Dr. Minkin says it’s important.