What to Do If Your Partner Has HPV

Ways to Reduce Risk and Prevent Infection

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

It can be scary to learn that someone you are dating has human papillomavirus (HPV). You may worry that it can be transmitted to you. Or you may have heard that people with HPV can develop cancer.

Many people with HPV never have symptoms. That may leave you to wonder if you have already acquired the infection. All of these are reasonable concerns.

To set your mind at ease and allow you to enjoy a healthy sex life, it's a good idea to learn about how HPV can impact a person and their sexual partners. This article explains HPV risks, cancer risks, testing, and prevention.

Two people holding hands walking in a city - stock photo

Petri Oescheger / Getty Images

HPV Risk

HPV is a widespread sexually transmitted infection (STI). You may have heard this described as an STD, or "sexually transmitted disease," but referring to infections is a more general term that covers asymptomatic cases that also need attention.

My Girlfriend Has HPV. Do I Have It?

It's possible, as vaginal, anal, and oral sex all put you at risk. You may not know you have the virus right away, though. HPV can show up weeks to years later. If you have a penis, know that while HPV is more easily spread from penis to vagina than vagina to penis, that doesn't mean you can't get infected.

All told, around 43 million Americans have HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most people acquire the infection in their late teens and early 20s.

A 2017 study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported that the rate of HPV infection in the United States was as follows.

Cancer Risk

There are both low-risk and high-risk HPV strains. These high-risk strains include HPV 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. High-risk strains are those that are commonly associated with cancer, including:

Low-risk strains are those unlikely to cause cancer or any symptoms at all. For example, HPV 6 and 11 cause 90% of genital warts but are rarely associated with cancer.

According to the NCHS, high-risk genital HPV prevalence is 22.7%. Even so, having a high-risk strain does not mean someone will definitely get cancer.

According to a 2015 study in the Journal of Virology, most infections with high-risk HPV strains will spontaneously clear up. Of the cases that progress to cancer, certain risk factors appear to contribute to their development, including:

  • Genetics
  • Smoking
  • Older age
  • Herpes co-infection
  • Infection with multiple high-risk HPV strains

That said, 70% of cervical cancers and precancerous cervical lesions are associated with two high-risk HPV strains: HPV 16 and HPV 18.

All told, there are over 200 strains of HPV. Of those, only 14 are considered high-risk.

Value of HPV Testing

Getting a positive HPV diagnosis doesn't necessarily suggest anything other than the need to monitor for cancer or precancer. Even then, the benefits of testing apply most to people with a cervix.

Cervical Pap Test

For those with a cervix, an HPV genetic test can detect the virus in a cervical smear. It can be performed alongside a Pap test. It is recommended in people ages 30 and over.

However, it is generally not used for those in their 20s. That's because most infections in this age group will go away independently.

The only HPV test the CDC recommends as routine is a cervical test, which may be done alongside a Pap smear.

Anal Pap Test

Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved tests to detect HPV in people with a cervix. However, doctors sometimes perform an anal Pap test in people considered to be at higher risk of anal cancer. These include gay and bisexual men and men who have tested positive for HIV.

Oral Tests

The oral test's usefulness is uncertain at best. That's because testing positive does not indicate HPV persistence. Persistence is the problem—HPV often has to remain present for decades to lead to oral cancer. Therefore, oral HPV testing isn't done. The best way to diagnose an oral HPV infection is through a visual exam by a doctor or dentist.

If your HPV test is positive, you can't necessarily determine how or when you contracted it. That's because symptoms (if they occur at all) can appear months or even years after infection. In fact, according to the CDC, it is presumed that nearly every sexually active unvaccinated person will acquire HPV at some point during their life. So, given the high infection rate, there is often little way of knowing when the exposure occurred.

Prevention

While you can't completely protect yourself against HPV, there are things you can do to reduce your risk. Chief among these is vaccination.

HPV Vaccine

The CDC recommends routine HPV vaccination for all sexes starting at 11 or 12 years old. In addition, it recommends vaccination for everyone through age 26 who is not adequately vaccinated.

The CDC does not recommend routine vaccination for people over age 26 because most people have already been exposed to HPV by this age. Therefore, the vaccine provides less benefit. However, certain people ages 27 to 45 may choose vaccination based on their circumstances and in consultation with their doctors.

If you are entering a new relationship with a partner who has HPV, vaccination remains the primary means of protection against possible transmission of the infection. However, it cannot treat an existing infection. Vaccination works best before exposure to HPV.

Safer Sex Practices

The other way to reduce your risk is to practice safer sex consistently. Safer sex practices include using barrier protection for sexual activity. Barriers include:

  • Dental dams: Dental dams can provide added protection if you are practicing oral sex on a vagina (cunnilingus) or anus (anilingus).
  • External and internal condoms: For penetrative sex or oral-penile sex (fellatio), you should use an internal or external condom, as appropriate.

In addition, having fewer sexual partners lowers the risk of contracting an STI.

It is important to remember that HPV spreads through skin-to-skin contact. Therefore, even if you use external or internal condoms, it is possible to acquire HPV if non-covered skin comes into contact with a lesion (including lesions you may not see).

If genital warts or lesions are present, it is best to avoid sex until they resolve. If you are not entirely sure if the condition has cleared, call your healthcare provider and take extra precautions if you do have sex, such as the use of gloves or finger cots for masturbation, fingering, or fisting.

Summary

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that infects nearly every unvaccinated sexually active person at some point in their lives. While it can lead to some kinds of cancers, most strains are not high-risk and clear on their own.

The only CDC-recommended HPV test is for people with a cervix. You can limit your chance of infection by getting the HPV vaccine and practicing safer sex with barriers.

A Word From Verywell

If you've recently learned that your partner has HPV, you may feel worried. Rest assured that with vaccination and safer sex practices, you can continue to have a healthy sex life while avoiding stress and anxiety.

Remember, there are more than 200 strains of HPV, and most are not high-risk. Also, keep in mind that someone can carry HPV for years without knowing it. Therefore, it's not possible to know how or when you or your partner contracted it. So steer clear of placing blame on yourself or your partner.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Comparison of female to male and male to female transmission of HIV in 563 stable couples. European Study Group on Heterosexual Transmission of HIV. BMJ. 1992 Mar 28;304(6830):809-13. doi: 10.1136/bmj.304.6830.809

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital HPV infection fact sheet.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Prevalence of HPV in adults aged 18-69: United States 2011-2014.

  4. Chen AA, Gheit T, Franceschi S, Tommasino M, Clifford GM. Human papillomavirus 18 genetic variation and cervical cancer risk worldwide. J Virol. 2015;89(20):10680-7. doi:10.1128/JVI.01747-15

  5. World Health Organization. Human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer.

  6. National Cancer Institute. HPV and Pap Testing.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cervical cancer: What should I know about screening?

  8. American Cancer Society. HPV and HPV testing.

  9. American Cancer Society. Cancer facts for gay and bisexual men.

  10. The Oral Cancer Foundation. HPV oral cancer facts

  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV and men fact sheet.

  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV vaccination recommendations.

  13. Planned Parenthood. How can I make sure I don’t get or spread HPV?

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.