Expert Answers Factual Answers to Your Sexual Health Questions
Can I pass genital warts through oral sex after the warts are gone?
I’ve just been diagnosed with HPV and I’m being treated for genital warts. What are the chances of transmitting the virus through oral sex after all signs of the virus have disappeared? And what are the chances of transmitting the virus through vaginal and anal sex?
Ruthann M. Cunningham, MD on September 20, 2011
Thanks for asking such great questions about a topic that a lot of people are confused about.
First, I’m glad that you saw your doctor for a diagnosis of your symptoms, so that you could get the treatment you need for your case of genital warts. As you already know, genital warts are caused by a type of human papillomavirus (HPV). Most doctors will prescribe a cream or lotion, first. But if that doesn’t work, you and your doctor can talk about different options...like freezing the genital warts or cutting them off.
Once your symptoms have disappeared...is there a risk of transmitting HPV? Yes. HPV is treatable...but not curable. It lives in your body even after the warts have been treated, and even if there are no visible symptoms of the virus. That means that you can still infect other people if you have sex with them...and that includes finger stimulation, as well as oral, vaginal or anal sex.
Rates of oral transmission of HPV are still being studied...but we do know that oral sex has some risks. We think oral transmission is most likely to happen to someone who performs oral sex on a man who has HPV...but it’s also possible for a woman who is HPV-positive to pass the virus to a partner during oral sex. While genital warts in the throat are rare, they can occur.
That said, a 2007 study in The New England Journal of Medicine tells us that a different kind of HPV ⎼ the type that can cause some cervical cancers ⎼ seems to contribute to the development of throat cancer, too.
We also know that the chances of transmitting HPV through anal or vaginal sex are substantial. You probably know that HPV can be spread through unprotected vaginal and anal sex, but did you know it can also be spread on fingers and sex toys, too...even if there are no warts or other visible symptoms? Although you won’t get genital warts on your hands, your hands can transfer the virus between genitals.
So, what’s the safest way to have sex if you’re HPV-positive? The only guaranteed way to prevent the transmission of HPV is to not have sex. But, I know...that’s not an acceptable option for a lot of people. So, if you are sexually active, make sure to tell your partner that you have HPV so that he or she is fully aware of the risks involved.
Then, use protection (e.g., a latex condom for vaginal and anal sex, and a condom or dental dam for oral sex) to reduce the risk of transmitting HPV. To find out more about HPV transmission, prevention and treatment, check out our HPV Overview.
Thanks again for your question...and I wish you good health.
Dr. Cunningham is a member of the Analyte Physicans Group. She's also a member of the American College of Emergency Physicians, practicing at both Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital in Illinois and at Wheaton Franciscan All Saints Medical Center in Wisconsin. An ER physician since 2000, she regularly treats patients with STDs. Dr. Cunningham was educated at Wayne State University School of Medicine and completed her Emergency Medicine residency at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, IL.