anonymous on September 20, 2011

Can you get genital warts by borrowing an infected person’s boxers?

Can you get genital warts by borrowing an infected person’s boxers? Here’s my story: I play in rock band and we had a photoshoot a while ago. We had to dress up in boxers and silk shirts...but I was in a hurry that day and forgot my “sexy” boxers. The photographer let me borrow her husband’s boxers so I replaced mine with his and did the shoot. A month later, I wind up with some strange bumps on my genitals and the doctor says I have genital warts. Then I remember that the photographer’s husband has genital warts. Could that be the cause? My girlfriend just got a Pap and it doesn’t show anything, and she’s getting a more sensitive test soon to see if she has the virus...

answered by Ruthann M. Cunningham, MD on September 20, 2011

Thanks for asking this important question about how genital warts are spread. 

First, it’s unlikely that you got genital warts from someone else’s boxers...especially if the boxers were clean. If the man with genital warts took his boxers off, gave them directly to you, and you immediately put them on...there’s a slightly higher possibility of spread, but it’s still unlikely. 

Genital warts are almost always spread through sexual contact. The virus that causes genital warts is called human papillomavirus (HPV). There are more than 100 different types of this virus and they generally infect only specific areas of the body. Researchers are still learning about how long the types of HPV that cause genital warts can live on other surfaces ⎼ like towels or boxers ⎼ but we do know that you’re not very likely to get HPV that way.

So, what caused your genital warts infection? HPV can stay in your system for a long time without showing any visible signs or symptoms. So it’s possible that you caught the virus from your current girlfriend or a previous partner...and you didn’t know you were infected because you didn’t show any signs of infection until now. 

Also, to be clear, your girlfriend could have HPV even though her Pap test was normal. Generally the kind of HPV that shows up on a Pap test is different from the kind of HPV that causes genital warts...and Pap tests will only show an HPV infection if the HPV has already changed the cells on her cervix. In other words, Pap tests aren’t foolproof. You mention that she’s getting a more sensitive test (called an HPV Test)...that’s probably a good idea, because it will look for the kind of HPV that causes genital warts. 

In the meantime, I encourage you follow the treatment plan your doctor prescribed to treat your genital warts...and practice safer sex. When you have visible warts, it’s possible that you’re more infectious and more likely to infect your girlfriend...if you haven’t already. So when you have visible warts, it’s best to not have sex. When the warts are gone, remember that you still have the virus...because unfortunately, HPV is not curable. So be sure to use a latex condom when you have oral, anal or vaginal sex to reduce the risk of passing the virus to her.

For more information about HPV risks, prevention, symptoms and treatment, see our HPV Overview

Thanks again for your questions, and I wish you and your girlfriend good health. 

Related info:

Ruthann M. Cunningham, MD

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.

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