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When the FDA approved the first human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in 2006, it was big news. The new HPV vaccination made headlines at the time, which wasn't surprising, given that it was the very first vaccine approved to prevent cervical cancer.

Yet, even though the HPV vaccine has been around for years, not everyone knows exactly what it is or what it does. You might be wondering: How does it work? Is it safe? Should you or your child get it?

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So you can be more confident when you talk to your doctor about the HPV vaccine, here are answers to these and other common questions about the vaccine.

What Is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. It's a virus that can be transmitted through sexual contact. During intercourse or oral sex, HPV can make its way into the genitals, mouth, or throat and cause infection.

Sexually transmitted HPV comes in more than 40 different varieties. The type of the virus you get determines what effects it has on your body. Certain types of HPV cause genital warts. Other HPV types can make cells turn cancerous. You've probably heard that HPV causes cervical cancer, but it also causes less common cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, head, and neck.

What's tricky about HPV is that it doesn't have symptoms. There's no sore throat or fever to let you know you've been infected. Most people clear the infection on their own. In fact, you might have absolutely no idea you've been infected until you develop genital warts or have an abnormal Pap test.   

Though HPV might not be as well known among sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as herpes or syphilis, it is actually the most common STI. If you're sexually active, there's a very good chance of being infected with HPV at some point in your life. That's why immunization is so important.

There are two HPV vaccines; what's the difference?

Two vaccines are available to protect females against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. One of these vaccines also protects men and women against most genital warts. Whichever of these vaccines you and your doctor choose, you should stick with the same vaccine for all three shots.

Do I have to get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine is an important way for women to protect themselves against cervical cancer, which kills about 4,000 women each year in the U.S. Both vaccines protect against the types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer. One of the vaccines can also help protect both men and women against genital warts. However, vaccination doesn’t protect against all HPV types that cause cervical cancers or genital warts. Whether you have to get vaccinated depends on your age and where you live. In certain states, girls and boys within the recommended ages may need to get the HPV vaccine in order to go to school.  

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