HPV Vaccines

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on August 24, 2022
3 min read

HPV vaccines protect against a very common sexually transmitted virus called HPV or human papillomavirus. HPV infects at least 50% of sexually active people at some point in their lives. The body often clears the virus on its own. But if the virus persists, it can lead to cervical, anal, and throat cancers and to genital warts.

Three HPV vaccines are approved for use in the U.S.: Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix. The only one currently used in the U.S. is Gardasil 9. The others are available in other countries.

Like all vaccines, HPV vaccines are not foolproof. They don’t protect against all of the 100-plus types of HPV. But they are nearly 100% effective in preventing disease caused by high-risk strains of HPV, which together account for 90% of all cervical cancers, as well as many cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, and throat.

Gardasil 9 targets 9 types of HPV: 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. HPV-6 and HPV-11 cause about 90% of genital warts.

The vaccine contains a virus-like particle but not the actual virus.

Insurance typically covers the cost of Gardasil. The federal Vaccines for Children Program covers the vaccine for those under age 19 who qualify. There’s no need to be tested for either cervical cancer or HPV before getting the vaccine. Ideally, you should get it before you’ve had a chance to be exposed to the virus. But even if you’ve been infected with one strain, it can still protect against others.

Serious side effects from the HPV vaccine haven’t been reported, but there have been fainting spells following injection in some teens and young adults. Mild side effects may include:

Like any vaccine, the HPV vaccine has a risk of a severe allergic reaction. It’s rare, but if you have swelling of your face and throat, trouble breathing, or hives after your vaccine, get help right away.

The vaccine works best when it’s given at a young age, before sexual activity begins and before exposure to HPV. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC recommend it for:

  • Girls and boys ages 11 to 12. They should have two doses 6 to 12 months apart. The series can be started as young as age 9.
  • Older teens and young adults up to age 26 who aren’t already vaccinated. After age 15, three doses are necessary.
  • Adult men and women ages 27 to 45 who aren’t already vaccinated and who have specific risk as determined by their doctor.

Your body’s immune response isn’t as strong if you get the vaccine as an older teen or adult. And once you’re sexually active, you may already be exposed. But the vaccine can still protect you from HPV strains you haven’t come in contact with.

If you’re pregnant, it’s recommended you wait to have an HPV vaccine. But there’s no evidence that it causes harm to an unborn baby. You also should not get the vaccine if you’ve had a reaction to an earlier HPV or other vaccine, or if you’re allergic to yeast. You should postpone the shot if you’re moderately or severely ill.

The vaccines are not an HPV cure. But they have been shown to provide long-lasting protection.

HPV vaccination doesn't mean women can skip their Pap tests. It doesn’t protect against all the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. Beginning at age 21 until age 65, women should have a Pap test every 3 years. Once age 30, the option of doing a Pap and HPV testing or HPV testing alone every 5 years also is available.

Dozens of studies involving thousands of people around the world have found HPV vaccines to be safe. Ongoing government programs track problems with vaccines, and so far they've turned up very few serious issues with HPV vaccines.