Can You Get HPV From Kissing?

Portrait of a couple kissing
Kissing couple. Thanasis Zovoilis / Getty Images

Question: Can you get HPV from kissing? 

Oral sex has been linked to an increased risk of those throat and mouth cancers caused by HPV. Therefore, it's not surprising that people often ask if kissing can lead to HPV transmission.

Answer: Probably, but it's not a huge risk.

Several studies have now suggested that open-mouth kissing and tongue kissing may be linked to HPV transmission. In 2014, a relatively large cohort study of heterosexual couples also found that when someone's partner had oral HPV, they had a high risk of being diagnosed with oral HPV themselves.

This suggested that kissing may play a role in oral HPV transmission. However, investigators made a point of noting that there were far more significant risks associated with smoking and oral sex

A case-control study published in 2009 also found that college-aged men with oral HPV infections had more open-mouth kissing partners and oral sex partners than men who did not have oral HPV infections. Furthermore, kissing and HPV were associated even for young men who had never had oral sex. It is important to know that the numbers involved in the study were small and that the study results should be treated with caution. However, In 2015, a study of 30-50 year old women also linked the number of people they'd kissed with an open mouth to the likelihood of finding HPV in their mouth. 

Several other studies have also found an association between intimate kissing and oral HPV, although cases are rare and the association is not universal.

At least one small Australian study did not find a link between kissing and HPV. However, it was hampered by low infection rates and few participants. 

Overall, the research suggests that french kissing, or other open-mouth kissing, may lead to HPV transmission.  That said, it's not something most people have to worry about.

First of all, oral HPV infections are relatively uncommon. Second, most cases of HPV oral infection will resolve on their own over time. They won't lead to long term complications such as throat or mouth cancer. Therefore, discovering that you have kissed someone who may have been exposed to oral HPV should not lead to panic. Your odds of getting an oral infection are low. The odds that something serious would happen because of it are even lower. 

Historically, scientists have believed that up to 80 percent of the sexually active population will be infected with HPV at some point during their lives. The prevalence of infection may change now that three HPV vaccines -- Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix -- are available. Still, the virus is likely to remain common for quite a few more years.

In summary, it's a good idea to discuss any known exposures when you have your pre-sex chat with a new partner. However, it's also important to remember that most sexually active people will have been exposed to HPV at some point during their sexual lives. That's true whether they realize it or not. In all likelihood, most of them will never know. HPV infections will not cause a significant impact on their lives.

 

Sources:
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Dahlstrom, K.R., Burchell, A.N.,Ramanakumar, A.V., Rodrigues, A., Tellier, P-P., Hanley, J., s Coutlée, F., and Franco, E.L.. Sexual Transmission of Oral Human Papillomavirus Infection among Men. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, November 2014

D'Souza G, Agrawal Y, Halpern J, Bodison S, Gillison ML. Oral sexual behaviors associated with prevalent oral human papillomavirus infection. J Infect Dis. 2009 May 1;199(9):1263-9.

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