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Cancer Risk and Prevention

How to Protect Against HPV

HPV (human papillomavirus) is a viral infection that can be passed from one person to another.

How is HPV spread?

HPV can be passed from one person to another by intimate skin-to-skin contact. It’s not spread through blood or body fluids.

HPV can be spread to someone else even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms. In fact, a person can have HPV for years without it causing any symptoms or problems.

Sexual contact

There are different types of HPV. The main way the mucosal types of HPV are spread is through sexual activity, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. HPV infections are more likely in people who have had many sex partners.

However, it’s important to know that anyone who has sexual activity with another person can be at risk for HPV if their partner has been exposed to HPV.

The virus can also be spread by genital contact without sex, but this is not common.


Transmission from mother to newborn during birth is rare, but it can happen, too. When it does, it can cause warts (papillomas) in the infant’s breathing tubes (windpipe and bronchi) and lungs, which is called respiratory papillomatosis. These papillomas can also grow in the voice box, which is called laryngeal papillomatosis. Both of these infections can cause life-long problems.

You cannot get HPV from:

  • Toilet seats
  • Hugging or holding hands
  • Swimming pools or hot tubs
  • Sharing food or utensils
  • Being unclean

You can have HPV even if:

  • It has been months or years since you were sexually active.
  • You do not have any signs or symptoms.

There may be other ways to become infected with HPV that aren’t yet clear. It’s important to know that someone can have the virus and pass it on without knowing it.

There’s no sure way to prevent infection with the different types of HPV. But there are things people can do to lower their chances of being infected and to protect children from getting HPV-related cancers as adults.

The best way to prevent HPV, and future diseases due to HPV, is to get vaccinated.

Vaccinate against HPV

HPV vaccines can prevent infection with certain types of HPV. They are approved for use in males and females, mainly boys and girls. They can only be used to prevent HPV infection – they don’t treat an existing infection. On-time vaccination protects young people from the most common mucosal HPV types that can cause genital warts and cancer later in life.

  • To work best, the HPV vaccines should be given to boys and girls between the ages of 9 and12.
  • Teens and young adults ages 13 through 26 years who have not been vaccinated or who have not received all of their shots should get the vaccine as soon as possible. Vaccination of young adults will not prevent as many cancers as vaccination of children and teens.
  • The American Cancer Society (ACS) does not recommend HPV vaccination for persons older than 26 years.

Learn more about HPV vaccination in HPV Vaccines.

Protect yourself during sex and skin-to-skin contact

It might be possible to keep from becoming infected with HPV by completely avoiding any contact of the areas of your body that can become infected (like the mouth, anus, and genitals). This means not having vaginal, oral, or anal sex.

If you are sexually active, limiting the number of sex partners and avoiding sexual activity with people who have had many other sex partners can help lower your risk of exposure to genital HPV. But again, HPV is very common, so having sexual contact with even one other person can put you at risk.

Condoms can offer some protection from HPV infection, but it might still be possible to pass HPV on areas that are not blocked by the condom. And condoms must be used every time, from start to finish. The virus can spread during direct skin-to-skin contact before the condom is put on, and male condoms don’t protect the entire genital area, especially for women. The female condom covers more of the vulva in women, but it hasn’t been studied as carefully for its ability to protect against HPV. Condoms are very helpful, though, in protecting against other infections that can be spread through sexual activity.

Can a person get HPV more than once?

Yes. Since there are many types of HPV, it’s possible to be infected more than once in your lifetime. You may have one type that goes away, but you can get another type. It’s also possible to get the same type again, but the risk of this is low.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

American Cancer Society. Cancer Prevention & Early Detection Facts & Figures 2023- 2024. American Cancer Society, Atlanta, GA. 2023.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Human Papillomavirus (HPV). 2023. Accessed at on February 13, 2024.

Fontham, ETH, Wolf, AMD, Church, TR, et al. Cervical Cancer Screening for Individuals at Average Risk: 2020 Guideline Update from the American Cancer Society. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020.

National Cancer Institute. HPV and Cancer. 2023. Accessed at on February 13, 2024.

Palefsky JM. Human papillomavirus infections: Epidemiology and disease associations. UpToDate. 2023. Accessed at on February 13, 2024.

Saslow D, Andrews KS, Manassaram-Baptiste D, et al. Human papillomavirus vaccination 2020 guideline update: American Cancer Society guideline adaptation. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020; DOI: 10.3322/caac.21616.

Last Revised: April 30, 2024

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.

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