How long can HPV be dormant?
Reviewed by our clinical team
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus that most people will have at some point during their life. There are over 100 different types and they can cause anything from hand warts and verrucas to genitals warts and certain cancers.
Most HPV infections are harmless and your body clears the infection completely. Sometimes the virus can stay in your skin without causing any issues - that's is when the virus is lying dormant: it's there but it's not active, it's 'sleeping'.
Can HPV lay dormant?
HPV is a virus that can have a dormancy period, meaning that it can spend a certain amount of time in your body without you realising that it's there. This is why you could get HPV from your partner or vice versa years into a monogamous relationship.
Most HPV types are harmless. Your immune system often clears the infection all by itself without you even knowing that you've had it. Some types of HPV can cause genital warts, whereas others trigger an uncontrolled growth of cells. This can lead to different types of cancer including cervical, vaginal and anal cancer.
Can HPV be detected when dormant?
While HPV is dormant it can't be detected. This means it won't be picked up by a cervical screening or HPV test. The virus will will only show up when it's active. So you might find that you have a cervical screening which is all clear and then the following screen, some years later, picks up HPV.
Can you spread HPV when it is dormant?
HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact, meaning that it can be transmitted by most sexual activities including vaginal, anal or oral sex, but using condoms can reduce the risk. It can also be spread by sharing sex toys or close touching during sex. This can occur even if the person with HPV doesn’t have any signs or symptoms.
There are many myths when it comes to dormant HPV:
1. Condoms protect against HPV
Whilst using a condom will reduce your chances of getting any STI, including HPV, it doesn’t offer 100% protection. This is because HPV can be spread from all areas of the skin around the genitals.
2. HPV only affects women
Men can also spread HPV, develop genital warts or be at risk of HPV related cancers.
3. HPV never goes away
HPV can remain dormant for months, years or decades. However it often clears up on its own.
4. If your partner has HPV, they must have been unfaithful
Because HPV can lay dormant, it means that you or your partner could have had the virus for years before your relationship started.
Discover more misconceptions about HPV in our guide.
How to prevent the spread of HPV
There isn’t a guaranteed way to protect yourself from HPV which is why the virus is so common. However there are precautions you can take to prevent the spread.
The best way to reduce your risk of contracting HPV types that are linked to genital warts and certain cancers, is to have the HPV vaccine. Ideally you should have the vaccine before you become sexually active, but you can actually have it any time after that and anyone over the age of 18 can be vaccinated with a private HPV vaccine online from Online Doctor.
The HPV vaccine is beneficial to both men and women, helping to prevent genital warts and cell changes that can lead to certain cancers. You can also get vaccinated even if you have HPV or have had it in the past. Although the HPV vaccine can't cure or treat the specific type of HPV you've already had, or currently have, it can prevent you from getting other types of HPV you haven't been exposed to (yet).
Using condoms and dental dams during sex can also reduce your risk of getting HPV, however this does not offer complete protection.
In summary, HPV can remain dormant for an uncertain amount of time. However, your body may fight off the infection on its own. HPV can become active at any point, and in the case of the type of HPV that might be causing cervical cancer you will not notice when (or if) it's become active, because your cervix is tucked away. That's why it’s important to stay up to date with cervical screenings.
If you want to stay protected against HPV, find out more about the HPV vaccine, available through the LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor Vaccination Service. You can also learn more about how the vaccine works in our FAQ guide as well as what to expect during a smear test.