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When it comes to taking charge of our sexual health, one of the things we’re taught is to practice safe sex to protect ourselves against STIs like HPV. But what about kissing? Can you get HPV from kissing? The short answer is: maybe.
Here’s what we know about HPV and what the research says about whether you can get it from kissing.
What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI)—it is spread by oral, anal, or vaginal sexual contact. You can also get it from skin-to-skin contact.
There are more than 100 types of HPV that can infect humans. According to a 2013–2014 analysis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that more than 45% of sexually active men and almost 40% of sexually active women had some form of HPV (McQuillan, 2017).
It has been linked to genital warts as well as several different types of cancers, including cervical cancer and oral cancer. Specifically, HPV 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 45, 52, and 58 fall in the high-risk category for potentially causing cancers (Luria, 2021).
Can you get HPV from kissing?
Unfortunately, there are no definitive studies proving or disproving whether you can get HPV from kissing. So, the short answer is maybe.
Several studies suggest that heterosexual couples where one person has HPV have a higher chance of transmission to the uninfected partner. This can happen via open-mouth kissing (i.e., French kissing), oral sex, or genital sex. But research has not established that deep kissing specifically causes oral HPV transmission. The data does show that you have an increased risk of getting HPV if you have multiple sexual partners (Brouwer, 2022; Dahlstrom, 2014).
Does human papillomavirus (HPV) go away?
How to prevent HPV infection
There are several things you can do to decrease your risk of getting HPV, including (Luria, 2021):
- Limiting the number of sexual partners.
- Practicing safe sex and using condoms or dental dams; be aware that wearing a condom does not provide 100% protection against infection as HPV may be present in areas not covered by a condom.
- Getting medical advice from your healthcare provider about getting the HPV vaccine (e.g., Gardasil 9).
Essentially, everyone is exposed to HPV, and there is no way to eliminate the risk of HPV transmission entirely. Most strains of HPV, including those that can cause cancer, typically resolve within 12 months and don’t usually become cancerous.
The rate of oral HPV prevalence has been associated with a greater number of sexual (including oral sex) and open-mouthed kissing partners in both men and women. However, kissing alone is not necessarily considered a high-risk sexual behavior for HPV transmission and is not an activity that is considered high risk for oral cancers.
When to see a healthcare provider
The CDC recommends that all people with cervixes 21–29 years old receive a pap smear every three years; and those with cervixes who are 30–65 years old should receive either a pap smear every three years, an HPV test every five years, or a pap smear plus an HPV test every five years (CDC, 2021).
While HPV has an association with oral cancers, transmission through kissing is not usually one of the ways it’s passed on. But if you begin to experience any symptoms in the head or neck like abnormal lesions, a lasting sore throat or hoarseness, difficulty or pain while swallowing, a lump or mass, or a persistent earache, reach out to your healthcare provider, especially if you’ve had oral sex or engaged in open-mouth kissing with someone who is HPV positive (Moore, 2015).
- Brouwer, A. F., Campredon, L. P., Walline, H. M., et al. (2022). Incidence and clearance of oral and cervicogenital HPV infection: longitudinal analysis of the MHOC cohort study. BMJ Open, 12(1), e056502. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2021-056502. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8724815/.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021). HPV-associated cancers and precancers. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/treatment-guidelines/hpv-cancer.htm
- Dahlstrom, K. R., Burchell, A. N., Ramanakumar, A. V., et al. (2014). Sexual transmission of oral human papillomavirus infection among men. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, 23(12), 2959–2964. doi:10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-14-0386. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25392180/
- Luria, L. & Cardoza-Favarato, G. (2021). Human papillomavirus. StatPearls. Retrieved on Feb. 14, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448132/
- McQuillan, G., Kruszon-Mora, D., Markowitz, L. E., et al. (2017). Prevalence of HPV in adults aged 18–69: United States, 2011–2014. NCHS Data Brief, 280. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db280.pdf
- Moore, K. A. & Mehta, V. (2015). The Growing Epidemic of HPV-Positive Oropharyngeal Carcinoma: A Clinical Review for Primary Care Providers. The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 28(4), 498–503. doi:10.3122/jabfm.2015.04.140301. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26152442
Dr. Chimene Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and Senior Medical Writer/Reviewer at Ro.