Can I get HPV from my partner?
Reviewed by our clinical team
There are over 100 different types of HPV. Most are harmless, some cause verrucas or hand warts, and there are around 40 strains that are sexually transmitted.
However, high-risk strains of HPV can lead to cell changes that may lead to certain cancers, including cervical cancer. This is why it’s really important for sexually active women to attend their smear tests when they're invited. Certain strains can also cause genital warts.
In this article we’re going to explore how you catch HPV, if you can catch it from your partner and the best ways to protect yourself from the most high-risk strains.
How common is HPV?
HPV is really common. According to the NHS, most people will get it at some point in their lives, think about warts and verrucas lots of us get from time to time.
In 2008, the government introduced a nationwide HPV vaccination programme in schools for girls aged 12 and 13 to protect against high-risk types that cause cervical cancer. According to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), by 2018, rates of high-risk HPV (types 16 and 18) in women aged between 16 and 21 had reduced by 86%. Cases of genital warts declined by 90% in teenage girls, and 70% in teenage boys.
Today, the HPV vaccine is also given to boys of the same age. The current vaccine also protects against genital warts.
Complications of HPV
Most people who catch HPV won’t even know they’ve had it, and it’s likely their bodies will clear the virus themselves. But for some people HPV can cause genital warts, as well as certain cancers.
Genital warts is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by HPV. Strains 6 and 11 of HPV cause most cases of the STI.
Genital warts are small fleshy bumps or growths on the genitals, around the anus or on the upper thighs. They can be painless, but some people find they are uncomfortable, itchy and can become inflamed.
Genital warts can be treated, but it may take several treatments and they’re likely to come back.
There are around 12 types of HPV that are associated with cervical cancer. Strains 16 and 18 are the ones that are responsible for up to 70% of cervical cancer cases.
Regular cervical screening is used to test for high-risk HPV and to spot any cell changes caused by the virus, which might put you at higher risk of cancer.
HPV can also trigger cell changes which might cause male cancers that affect men, like penis, anus and some head and neck cancers.
While these tend to be rare, it’s still important to be aware of the impact of HPV and men, especially as there is no routine screening for the virus in men. You can find out more about HPV in men here.
How do you catch HPV or genital warts?
The reason HPV is so common is because the virus lives on the skin. This means you can catch it simply through skin-to-skin contact.
HPV can be passed between sexual partners of any gender. Men can catch it from men and women, and vice versa.
Thanks to the HPV vaccination programme, it’s likely for the next few years, virus will be less widespread among younger women who benefited from getting the vaccine in school. Because fewer men and boys have been vaccinated, men who have sex with other men may generally be more at risk of HPV transmission.
Is HPV only sexually transmitted?
No, there are over 100 types of HPV, and they nearly all spread through close contact, but it doesn’t have to be sexual contact.
However, types of HPV that cause genital warts and other high-risk types of HPV are passed on through skin-to-skin contact with the genitals, vaginal, anal or oral sex or sharing sex toys. This means it’s very easy to catch it from your sexual partner. Using condoms and dental dams can help reduce the risk of HPV transmission, but won’t offer complete protection.
How long can HPV be dormant?
Some people worry about finding out they have HPV when they're married and in what they believe to be a monogamous relationship. But it's important to bear in mind is that the virus can lay dormant in the body for long periods, before becoming active again. This means that you can catch HPV from your partner even if you're in a monogamous relationship years into it.
Can I be re-infected with HPV?
It’s possible to get HPV more than once from the same partner, because there are many different strains.
It’s also thought that reinfection with the same strain can happen. In theory, it’s possible that a monogamous couple could re-infect one another with the same strain of HPV more than once, but research is still being done to look at this.
Should I tell my partner I have HPV?
Most people who have HPV won’t be aware that they have it, because it doesn’t cause symptoms.
It’s likely that you’ll only know you have HPV in the following circumstances:
- You develop genital warts
- You have a cervical screening and high-risk HPV is found
If you’re diagnosed with genital warts, it’s important to tell your sexual partner. It’s possible to pass on the virus even when there are no visible warts on the skin, so your partner may have it without knowing.
In the case of high-risk HPV being found during a cervical screening, the situation around transmission to your partner is less black and white. There’s no way to completely avoid transmission of HPV during sex. If you or your partner are male, there's no widely available HPV test for men. But some sexual health clinics might offer anal screening to men who have a high risk of developing anal cancer, e.g. men who have sex with men.
Regardless of the situation, it’s normally a good idea to be open, honest, and communicative with your sexual partners. You may also find that telling them about your situation helps you feel less worried.
Should I get the HPV vaccine?
The HPV vaccine cannot cure HPV if it’s already in your system before you get the virus – all it can do is offer protection against new infection. If you’re sexually active, there’s a chance you already have some form of HPV in your system.
Having said that, vaccination could still be beneficial if you’re concerned about contracting high-risk types, or getting genital warts.
If you went to school in the UK and were eligible for the vaccine but you missed the opportunity, you can get it for free on the NHS up until you’re 25. You may also be eligible if you’re a man who has sex with other men, or if you’re transgender.
If you’re not eligible for a free vaccine, you can get yours through LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor. Order your Gardasil 9 vaccine online and you can get your injections at your nearest LloydsPharmacy store.