Can You Get HPV From a Toilet Seat?

How HPV Is Transmitted and How to Prevent Getting It

It's a myth that you can catch human papillomavirus (HPV) from a toilet seat—at least, a toilet seat in a developed country—but the question prompts a review of some of the lesser-known facts about how the virus is transmitted.

A woman with toilet paper in her hands
Kittisak Jirasittichai / EyeEm / Getty Images

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.

HPV is linked to some cases of cervical cancer and genital warts. Understanding the different ways that you may catch HPV is important to reduce your risk of infection.

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—which is called fomite transmission—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 (pathogen-transmitting objects) in the form of wet towels may be responsible for some cases of HPV in young children. In this scenario, an infected parent may transfer the virus to a towel, and shortly thereafter use the towel on their child.

The presence of HPV on objects has been clearly demonstrated. Ultrasound probes used within the body, including 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 a pool with an infected person appears to be safe.

Methods of Transmission

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.

Sexual activities that can transmit the virus include:

  • Vaginal intercourse
  • Anal intercourse
  • Oral sex
  • Touching your infected partner's genitals and then your own
  • Kissing
  • Fisting or fingering
  • Using undisinfected sex toys after an infected person
  • Genital-to-genital contact (same or opposite sex)

Non-sexual modes of transmission can include:

  • Transplacental transmission (rare): Uncommonly, HPV may travel from an infected mother up into the uterus during pregnancy. 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 as the baby travels through the birth canal. It may result in papillomas in a baby's mouth, throat, or lungs.
  • Digital (hand) 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 by, for example, 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. You can pass HPV to another person even when you have no signs or symptoms associated with the disease.

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, you may want to take steps to protect yourself and your family.

Immunization

Three HPV vaccines can protect against certain strains of the virus. The vaccine is approved for:

  • Boys between the ages of 9 and 15
  • Girls between the ages of 9 and 26

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently extended this coverage for women up to the age of 45.

The vaccines vary somewhat in the strains they cover, but they all cover some strains associated with cervical cancer and some strains that cause genital warts. It's important to do a little research and talk to your doctor about which one is best for you.

Other Prevention Methods

Vaccines aren't the only way to protect yourself and others from HPV infection.

Awareness: The first step is being aware that these viruses are "out there" and that someone can be infected even if they don't have symptoms.

Safe sex: Safe-sex practices are important for reducing HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Limiting your number of sexual partners and using a condom can reduce your risk. Proper condom use alone reduces women's HPV risk by 70%.

Handwashing: Handwashing can reduce your risk of contracting HPV or spreading it to other people or areas of your body.

Regular Pap Smears: Even asymptomatic HPV infections can lead to cervical cancer, so it's important to follow current guidelines for Pap smears (and HPV testing in some cases).

A Word From Verywell

The chance of catching HPV from a toilet seat is extremely unlikely in developed countries. Even so, the virus can be transmitted in non-sexual ways, and theoretically, even from an object to a person.

Being aware of the methods of transmission and taking precautions such as safe sex, handwashing, and getting immunized can go a long way toward lowering your risk.

HPV Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

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  1. Sabeena, S., Bhat, P., Kamath, V., and G. Arunkumar. Possible non‐sexual modes of transmission of Human Papilloma Virus. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology Research. 2017. 43(3):427-435. doi:10.1111/jog.13248

  2. Ryndock, E., Robison, R., and C. Meyers. Susceptibility of HPV16 and 18 to high-level disinfectants indicated for semi-critical ultrasound probes. Journal of Medical Virology. 2016. 88(6):1076-80. doi:10.1002/jmv.24421

  3. Puranen, M., Syrjanen, K., and S. Syrjanen. Transmission of genital Human Papillomavirus Infections is unlikely through the floor and seats of humid dwellings in countries of high-level hygiene. Scandinavian Journal of Infectious Diseases. 1996. 28(3):243-246. doi:10.3109/00365549609027165

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STD facts - Human papillomavirus.