Can You Get HPV From a Toilet Seat?

How HPV Is Transmitted and How to Prevent Getting It

interior of public washroom sinks and mirrors
Tanja-Tiziana, Doublecrossed Photography / Getty Images

It's a myth that you can catch human papillomavirus (HPV) from a toilet seat—at least a "Western" toilet seat—but the question prompts a review of some of the lesser-known facts about how the virus is transmitted. For example, unlike some sexually transmitted diseases, HPV doesn't require sexual contact to spread and can even be spread from mothers to babies at times. And while the spread of the virus from an object to a person (fomite transmission) hasn't been clearly documented, studies have found evidence of HPV on ultrasound probes and towels. Understanding the different ways that you may catch HPV is important to reduce your risk of infection.

Let's address the potential of fomite transmission specifically, and then review the different ways the virus may be spread or possibly spread and how you can protect yourself.

HPV and Fomite Transmission

We don't have conclusive evidence showing the transmission of HPV from a person to an object and then to another person, but we do have other findings that raise some concern (although relatively small in comparison to other modes of transmission).

It's thought that fomites in the form of towels (at least wet towels) may be responsible for some cases of HPV in young children. In this scenario, a parent may touch themselves if infected, then touch a towel, and then use the towel shortly thereafter on their child.

The presence of HPV on objects has, however, been clearly demonstrated. Ultrasound probes used within the body, for example, probes used for a vaginal ultrasound, may become contaminated with HPV including high-risk strains. When this occurs, even some high-level disinfectants are inadequate to remove the virus. Fortunately, chemical methods such as sonicated hydrogen peroxide and non-chemical methods such as ultraviolet C radiation appear effective.

An older Scandinavian study looked specifically for the presence of HPV DNA on toilet seats and floors in a humid resort setting and found no evidence of the virus.

Though HPV may uncommonly be passed on via a towel or medical instrument, sharing toilet seats (at least in countries with a high level of hygiene), or swimming in the same swimming pool appear to be safe.

Methods of Transmission: How Can You Get HPV?

HPV is most often transmitted through skin-to-skin contact from an infected partner, oftentimes during sexual activity, yet other methods are possible as well. Some of these include:

  • Vaginal intercourse
  • Anal intercourse
  • Oral sex
  • Touching your infected partner's genitals and then your own
  • Kissing
  • Fisting or fingering
  • Sharing sex toys with an infected person without disinfecting first
  • Genital-to-genital contact (same or opposite sex)
  • Transplacental transmission (rare): Uncommonly, HPV may travel from an infected mother up into the uterus during pregnancy, and HPV DNA has been found in amniotic fluid and the umbilical cord.
  • From an infected mother to a baby during a vaginal birth (perinatal transmission): Transmission is thought to occur during travel through the birth canal and may result in papillomas in a baby's mouth, throat, or lungs.
  • Digital contact: A parent or other caregiver who has HPV-related warts on their hands may transfer the virus to a baby during diaper changes.
  • Auto-inoculation: A person may spread the virus from one region of their body to another, for example, by touching genital warts and then touching their mouth.

Oral HPV infection appears to be significant in the transfer of HPV among family members.

Asymptomatic Infections

It's possible to have HPV and not realize it. HPV can be passed from person to person even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms that are normally associated with HPV. And even if you have not had sex for many years, you could still potentially be infected.

HPV symptoms can sometimes develop years after exposure, making it difficult for many people to know when they contracted the infection.

Preventing HPV Infections

Since HPV is not only the most common sexually transmitted disease but can be transmitted in non-sexual ways as well, how can you protect yourself and your family?

Awareness: The first step is simply being aware that these viruses are "out there" and that a person could be infected even if he or she doesn't have any symptoms. Awareness of invisible microorganisms alone helped drop the rate of devastating childbed fever when the unseen culprits were acknowledged.

Practicing Safe Sex: Safe sex practices are important for reducing not only HPV infections but several sexually transmitted diseases. Women may reduce their risk of HPV by 70 percent by regularly insisting on a condom and making sure it is used correctly. For sexually active individuals, wearing a condom and limiting the number of sexual partners may reduce the risk of transmission.

Handwashing: Handwashing is very important in many ways and is also one way to reduce your risk of either contracting or spreading HPV to other areas of your body or to other people.

Getting Immunized: There are now three HPV vaccines that protect against certain strains of the virus. The vaccine is approved for males between the ages of 9 and 15 and females between the ages of 9 and 26, though the FDA recently extended this coverage for women up to the age of 45. The vaccines vary somewhat in the strains they cover (though all cover some strains that are associated with cancer as well as the strains that commonly cause genital warts), so it's important to do a little research and talk to your doctor about which one is best for you.

Regular Pap Smears: Since HPV infections are often asymptomatic in women (but could still be causing the changes that could lead to cervical cancer), it's important to follow current guidelines for Pap smears (and HPV testing in some cases).

A Word From Verywell

The chance that HPV could be acquired from a toilet seat is extremely unlikely in developed countries. That said, the virus can be transmitted in non-sexual ways, and theoretically, even from an object to a person (fomite transmission). Having an awareness of the methods of transmission and taking precautions such as safe sex, handwashing, and getting immunized can go a long way in lowering your risk.

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