What should I know about the HPV vaccine? 

Published: Wednesday, January 3, 2024
Alix Schnibben
Director of Clinical Quality and Pharmacy Services, NGPG

The HPV vaccine has been around for nearly 20 years now, but many people remain confused about what it’s for and who needs it.  

If you’ve ever gone looking for information about this vaccine, you may have stumbled across many mixed messages and misconceptions. That’s why we’re taking some time today to explain the basics of the HPV vaccine. 

Defining HPV

Before we dive into a discussion about the HPV vaccine, let’s first discuss what HPV is. HPV stands for human papillomavirus, a common virus and the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). 

Because HPV is an STI, it’s less talked about than other viruses. But the vast majority of sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in life—up to 90 percent of men and 80 percent of women. 

Human papillomavirus typically spreads slowly and often clears the body before it causes any harm. In some cases, though, HPV can linger and cause abnormal cell changes that can lead to genital warts or certain types of cancer.  

There are at least 13 types of HPV that are linked to cancer of the cervix, anus, vagina, penis, mouth, and throat. Among those, cervical cancer is the most common, with nearly 14,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the United States.  

While most often spread during vaginal, oral, or anal sex, HPV can also be passed from person to person through skin-to-skin touching. 

It’s pretty fascinating, actually! While there are many different types of cancer, we have few preventive tools to fight against them. 

There’s research being done to potentially create vaccines that could prevent other types of cancer, but for now, there are only two vaccines that help prevent cancers. One is the hepatitis B vaccine, which can help prevent liver cancer—and the other is the HPV vaccine, which helps prevent the cancers outlined above. 

The HPV vaccine, therefore, is recommended as a way to prevent cancer, and it also prevents genital warts. First approved by the FDA in 2006, this vaccine is an incredibly effective tool for fighting cancer. Take a look at the numbers: 

  • Infections with the types of HPV responsible for cancer and genital warts have decreased by 88 percent among teen girls and by 81 percent among young women
  • When it comes to cervical cancer specifically, the number of cervical precancers caused by HPV has dropped by 40 percent

The HPV vaccine is also safe. There are multiple companies producing a vaccine, and each has been through rigorous safety testing over the years since approval. 

Potential side effects are usually limited to pain, inflammation, or redness at the injection site and minor muscle pain. In rare cases, vaccines, including the HPV vaccine, can cause fainting, particularly among those who get woozy at the thought of having a shot. 

One other note? The HPV vaccine does not contain the whole human papillomavirus, and it cannot cause an HPV infection, cancer, or infertility.  

The HPV vaccine is recommended for all preteens, teens, and young adults between the ages of 9 and 26. While the CDC recommends that the vaccine be given at age 11 or 12, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children receive it between the ages of 9 and 12.  

Why is it typically given so early? There’s a good reason! The AAP perhaps says it best, “Preteens produce more antibodies after HPV vaccination than older teens. Vaccinating at a younger age can also protect kids before they are exposed to the virus.”  

When given before age 15, the HPV vaccine requires only two doses. The second dose should be given between six months and a year after the first dose.  

Teens and young adults can also receive the vaccine. Those between the ages of 15 and 26 need three doses of the HPV vaccine. The second dose of the vaccine should be given at least four weeks after the first, and the third dose should be 12 weeks after the second dose. 

In some cases, a medical provider may recommend the HPV vaccine for an adult between the ages of 26 and 45. The vaccine will not harm someone of that age, but it may be less effective since HPV exposure is likely by that age. 

HPV is most often associated with cervical cancer, but it can cause many other types of cancer, which is why it’s recommended for everyone. It’s especially important for boys and young men to be vaccinated against HPV since there are no routine screenings for the HPV-associated cancers other than cervical cancer. 

Other ways to protect your health 

While the HPV vaccine is an incredible tool for the prevention of many types of cancer and genital warts, it’s not foolproof. It’s important to take other steps to protect your health in addition to getting the vaccine. 

This includes practicing safe sex. If you are sexually active, being part of a mutually monogamous relationship can help protect your health and your partner’s. It’s also important to use condoms correctly each time you have sex.  

Those with a cervix should continue being screened for cervical cancer, even if they’ve had the HPV vaccine.  

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends getting a Pap smear to screen for cervical cancer every three years between ages 21 and 29. The task force recommends that those between ages 30 and 65 continue having a Pap smear every three years or have an HPV test every five years or cotest with both a Pap smear and an HPV test every five years. 

You may need to be screened more often or earlier depending on certain factors, including your family medical history, personal medical history, and overall health. Your OB/GYN or another women’s health provider can recommend a cervical cancer screening routine based on your needs. 

Beyond these basic measures, it’s also a good idea to take steps to keep your immune system strong and healthy. When an infection of any kind, including HPV infection, occurs, the immune system plays a key role in fighting it off.  

Practicing healthy lifestyle habits is the best way to strengthen your immune system, so move your body regularly, eat a diet filled with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, prioritize getting enough quality sleep, and find healthy ways to manage stress. 

Learn more

Have other questions about HPV or the HPV vaccine? A medical provider can help answer your questions. Find a provider here.