How can you catch HPV?
Reviewed by our clinical team
Usually, HPV is nothing to worry about, but sometimes it can lead to genital warts and cell changes that can lead to cancer. If you’re concerned, read on to find out more about the virus and how to avoid catching it.
How HPV is spread
The human papillomavirus infects the skin and the mucous membranes. These are the linings of the body cavities and canals, like the mouth, throat, nose, anus and vagina.
There are over 100 different types of HPV and many of them don’t specifically affect the genital area – for example, some cause harmless warts on the hands and feet. However, there are around 40 types that do affect the genitals, and these types are highly contagious – they can also affect the mouth and throat.
The main thing to know about HPV is that you can catch it through skin-to-skin contact, which means you can get it by doing any of the following:
- Skin-to-skin contact in the genital area
- Vaginal sex
- Anal sex
- Oral sex
- Sharing sex toys
You can catch HPV during sex even if you’re using protection like condoms and dental dams, as any areas of skin that aren’t covered will still be vulnerable to infection.
The good news is that most types of HPV are harmless and won’t cause any problems. In fact, your body will probably clear the virus without you ever knowing you had it.
How genital warts are spread
Genital warts are fleshy growths that can develop on the skin around the genitals and anus. They’re caused by certain strains of HPV, most commonly types 6 and 11.
You can get genital warts from skin-to-skin contact in the genital area. This includes vaginal and anal sex and sharing sex toys. It’s also possible to pass on HPV through oral sex, although this is rare.
Genital warts may come and go over time, as the virus lives in the skin. This means that you can pass on genital warts to your partner even if you don't have any visible warts.
How to stop HPV spreading
It’s not easy to avoid catching HPV, which is why it’s so common. It’s thought that about eight in 10 people will get HPV at some point during their life.
Part of the problem is that, in most cases, there’s no way to know if you have HPV. Women can have cervical screenings to check for high-risk strains on the cervix, but there’s no test like this for men. This means it’s virtually impossible to know if someone you’re having sex with has the virus.
One way to reduce your chance of getting HPV is to use condoms and dental dams during sex. However, this won’t prevent HPV completely as there will still be exposed areas of skin.
The best way to stay protected from high-risk and "genital wart" strains is to get the HPV vaccine, which is currently offered for free to the following groups:
- Girls and boys in school
- Men and women under the age of 25 who missed the vaccine in school
- Men who have sex with men up to the age of 45
- Some trans men and women up to the age of 45
For adults, the HPV vaccine is given as three injections over the space of several months. It’s available for free at GUM and HIV clinics.
If you’re not eligible for a free HPV vaccine you can get yours privately through a service like Online Doctor and have your injections at your nearest LloydsPharmacy store.
If you've had your HPV vaccine at school between 2008 and 2012, you will have received the Cervarix vaccine; this offers protection against cervical cancer, but not against genital warts. You could consider "upgrading " this to the Gardasil 9 vaccine which also offers protection against genital warts. You can speak to your GP about this or have this done privately through our Online Doctor service.