Sexual Health Experts Address a Common Fear About HPV and Kissing

"These are all considered what we call low risk activities."

Sexual health experts will tell you that human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted infection, isn’t generally something to worry about. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ample myths circulating about the virus. Among the usual HPV myths, there’s a common question that rears its head more often than most: Can you get HPV from kissing?

To answer this question, it’s important to know that of the nearly 200 different strains of HPV, about 40 are spread through different types of sexual contact. Still, the idea of contracting HPV can be concerning because some strains cause genital warts, and others are known to cause certain cancers. But there are only a few strains to be truly wary of. Ninety percent of genital warts cases can be traced to two different strains of HPV — HPV-6 and HPV-11 — and in terms of cancer risk, some of the most commonly implicated strains are HPV-16 and HPV-18.

boy receives vaccine
The HPV vaccine is really the best way to avoid contracting HPV. In England, Boys receive HPV shots, as do girls. 

The best way to protect against those strains is to get the HPV vaccine, which H. Hunter Handsfield, Ph.D., professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Washington, previously told Inverse was “biologically the most effective vaccine ever developed for any medical condition.” June Gupta, M.S.N., the associate director of medical standards at Planned Parenthood, adds that there are still patients who come into her clinic raising concerns about kissing. For them, she and other experts have a simple answer.

Can You Get HPV From Kissing?

“Another common concern is that you can get STIs through kissing, or that you can get them from touching your partner’s hands or by using sex toys,” Gupta tells Inverse. “These are all considered what we call low risk activities. There’s almost no risk, or a very very low risk of getting STDs through these acts.”

HPV is passed through either exchange of fluids or contact with infected tissue (the HPV virus actually infects the basal epithelial cells — a bottom layer of cells that make up “surface tissues,” from the skin to organs). Most often, HPV infects tissues around or on the genital areas, but some strains of HPV can infect other body parts, like the mouth.

Handsfield explains that the large majority of HPV infections are acquired during vaginal sex, anal sex, or some type of genital to genital contact. He adds that a “modest number” of cases are likely transmitted through oral sex. Oral HPV infections are common enough, Handsfield adds, that we can’t completely rule out the possibility that they’re transmitted through kissing too, but oral sex is the most likely suspect behind oral HPV infection.

Even then, it’s not an extremely common form of the virus. A 2017 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that 11.5 percent of men tested for HPV in a sample of 4,493 men had oral forms of HPV. They found that 3.2 percent of the sample of 4,641 women had oral HPV.

kissing HPV
There's a low risk of getting HPV from kissing compared to other types of sexual contact. 

“The frequency of HPV in the mouth and throat implies that some cases may be transmitted through oral sex, and some may be transmitted by kissing,” he adds.

But the real takeaway is that the risk is extremely low compared to other sexual activities.

Does The Type Of Kissing Matter?

As far as how those cases are passed, the CDC reports that studies show “conflicting results”, and that the “likelihood of getting HPV from kissing or having oral sex with someone who has HPV is not known.” At this point, experts can only speculate:

“All we can say is that because HPV can be carried in the mouth it would seem reasonable that it could be transmitted through sexual kissing — open mouth, vigorous kissing. Probably, not at all by social pecks on the cheeks or social kissing,” Handsfield adds. “All we can say is that it’s uncommon, but we can’t say it doesn’t happen.”

When her patients raise their fears about getting HPV from kissing, Gupta adds that it’s really not something to be overly concerned about. She calls kissing a low-risk activity, a pleasurable way to be fairly safe from HPV — especially if someone is already vaccinated against the few, more worrisome strains and uses condoms or dental dams to “really minimize that skin-to-skin contact or fluid exchange.”

Even then, she and Handsfield both add, HPV in general really isn’t something to be concerned about. It’s incredibly common, in most cases dissipates over time, and is easily managed with treatment.