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How is human papillomavirus (HPV) spread?

Dr. Diane Harper
Health Education Specialist

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a human skin to human skin contact infection. Not fluids, not blood, not saliva, not sperm. HPV that causes hand and feet warts are very different types than the types that cause genital warts or cancer, so a hand wart will not give you genital warts.

HPV types that cause cancer live in moist, generally dark places, such as in the soft tissue under your fingernails, as well as the genitals, anus and mouth. For men who are not circumcised, under the foreskin is the most likely place of infection and cancer. But the penile shaft and the scrotum can be HPV-infected as well. For women, the vulva, or outside genital skin, including the labia (lips), can be infected with HPV types that cause cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection can be spread by touch. For example, HPV can be spread through skin to skin contact, such as direct contact with skin warts. HPV can also be spread through sexual intercourse, which can lead to cervical, penile and vaginal cancers.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is spread by skin-to-skin contact with an HPV-infected area. Infections can be subclinical, meaning the virus lives in the skin without causing symptoms. This is why many people with HPV do not know they have it or that they could spread it. For a person exposed to a partner who has a low-risk genital wart-causing strain of HPV such as HPV 6 or 11, it usually takes about six weeks to three months for genital warts to appear. However, infections with high-risk strains of HPV cause no symptoms and can only be detected on Pap or HPV tests.

Researchers already know that condoms don't always protect against the virus because the virus can grow on areas of the genitals not covered by a latex barrier.

Researchers don't know whether people infected with genital HPV but who don't have symptoms are as contagious as people with symptoms. They also don't know how much HPV is transmitted through sexual contact versus skin-to-skin contact.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.