The human papillomavirus is transferred from person to person by skin-to-skin intimate contact with someone who has the infection. Transmission of HPV without sex, though uncommon, does happen.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) was identified as a cause of cervical cancer in the 1980s. It is one of the seven viruses known to cause cancers in humans. We know the virus is transmitted by sexual activity.
Can you also get HPV if you are not sexually active? This is a crucial question because HPV infection can determine your risk status for several forms of cancer, and the need for vaccination and screening tests.
What Is HPV?
HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is a family of DNA viruses. More than 200 types are known. Most of them infect the skin and cause common skin warts. The types of HPV that cause only skin warts and genital warts are considered low-risk types since they do not cause cancer.
Low-risk HPV types are non-oncogenic types (not causing cancer). Two low-risk types, types 6 and 11, can cause some abnormalities of the cervical cells, anogenital warts, and papillomas of the respiratory system.
High-risk (oncogenic or cancer-causing) types of HPV are associated with cervical and other cancers. The most common types associated with cancer are types 16 and 18, which together cause about two-thirds of cervical cancers. Other high-risk serotypes are 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. HPV infections are frequently asymptomatic. These cause no warts or cancers.
Dangers of HPV infection
Cervical cancer. This is a malignancy of the lowest part of your uterus, called the cervix. Cervical cancer is one of the most frequent cancers of women. Infection with a high-risk type of HPV is necessary for this cancer to occur. But, not all women with such infections develop cervical cancer.
Other Anogenital Cancers. The same high-risk HPV types also cause cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, and anus.
Oropharyngeal cancers. Cancers of the tongue, tonsils, and throat.
Anogenital warts. These are considered the result of sexually transmitted disease. The warts appear around the anal and genital areas some months after infection.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most frequent cancer among women. HPV is responsible for 99% of cervical cancers, 90% of anal cancers, 65% of vaginal cancers, 50% of vulvar cancers, and 45% to 90% of oropharyngeal cancers.
Can you get HPV without sex?
The human papillomavirus is transferred from person to person by skin-to-skin intimate contact with someone who has the infection. Penetrative vaginal and anal sex are common modes of transmission. The virus is also transmitted by oral sex. Transmission of this virus is almost always by sexual contact.
Transmission of HPV without sex, though uncommon, does happen. The two methods described are vertical transmission and horizontal transmission.
Vertical transmission is the passage of infection to babies from their mothers during pregnancy or birth. This can happen through the placenta, the amniotic fluid (the liquid in the womb in which a baby floats) and by contact with the mother’s genital mucosa.
Horizontal transmission is the passage of infection by non-sexual contact. Mouth-to-skin (non-sexual) contact can be a route of transmission. The human papillomavirus is quite hardy. It is not easily destroyed by heat, drying, and alcohol-based disinfectants. HPV can survive in the environment for several days. They are found on surfaces, fomites (like towels), and instruments used in hospitals. These are infrequent sources of infection.
Most people who have HPV infection have no symptoms. They are not aware that they have this infection. A large number of them carry the virus on their fingers, which can infect others.
HPV has been found in sewage and water, where it can survive for several days. But, waterborne transmission of human papillomavirus has not been seen.
Tattoos have been found to carry HPV infection. These infections have generally been warts on the areas tattooed. The few cases that have been tested had low-risk human papillomavirus types.
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How to Avoid HPV
Though avoiding sex can keep you somewhat safe, the protection is not absolute. You still have a small risk of getting HPV without sex. This infection is widespread, and virgins and children with no history of sexual abuse have also been found to be infected.
The only known risk factor for HPV is a higher number of lifetime and recent sex partners. Other factors like age of sexual debut, genetic factors, number of pregnancies, and smoking do not seem to affect the risk.
Vaccination. We have an effective and safe vaccine for protection against this cancer-causing virus. The vaccine can be given as early as 9 years but is recommended at age 11 or 12. The vaccine is best given before any exposure to HPV. Depending on the age at first dose, you may need two or three doses.
The currently available vaccine protects against nine types (serotypes) of the human papillomavirus. HPV vaccination protects against getting the infection but cannot treat an infection that has already happened. Sexually active adults have probably been infected with some types of HPV. People in a mutually monogamous relationship are unlikely to get new infections.
Medically Reviewed on 1/11/2022
American Cancer Society: “Known and Probable Human Carcinogens.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “HPV Vaccination Recommendations” “Human Papillomavirus.”
Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology: “Tattoo-Associated Viral Infections: A Review.”
Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine: “Non-sexual HPV transmission and role of vaccination for a better future.”