Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the virus that causes cervical cancer in women and genital warts in men and women. 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 how it affects 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.
The HPV vaccine effectively prevents infection with the HPV types responsible for most cervical cancers and can also prevent genital warts. HPV vaccination is most effective during childhood or adolescence, but adults can also benefit from the HPV vaccine.
Why Adults Should Get the HPV Vaccine
HPV infection is extremely common. Most sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in life. More than 42 million people in the United States are infected with HPV and most of them don’t know it. It spreads easily among infected partners. HPV infection usually causes no symptoms, but can cause genital warts and anal cancer in both women and men. HPV can also cause throat cancer.
In women, HPV infection can cause cells in the cervix to grow abnormally. In a small fraction of women, these HPV-induced changes will develop into cervical cancer. About 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and about 4,000 women die from the condition.
The HPV vaccine prevents infection by the HPV types responsible for most cervical cancers. Up until 2017, there were two vaccines available (Gardasil and Gardasil 9). Today, Gardasil 9 is the only available HPV vaccine in the U.S.
Gardasil 9 prevents infection by the same HPV types as Gardasil, plus HPV-31, HPV-33, HPV-45, HPV-52, and HPV-58. Collectively, these types are implicated in 90% of cervical cancers. In October 2018, the FDA approved Gardasil9 for everyone ages 9 through 45
HPV vaccines are extremely effective at preventing infection by the HPV types they cover. Getting the HPV vaccine reduces a woman’s risk of cervical cancer and precancerous growths substantially. Men cannot develop cervical cancer, but the HPV vaccine may prevent genital warts, penile cancer, anal cancer, and the spread of HPV to sexual partners. Gardasil 9 is approved for males ages 9 through 26.
When Should Adults Get the HPV Vaccine?
The best time to get the HPV vaccine is before you've started having sexual activity. That's why the CDC recommends that both boys and girls get their vaccination at age 11 or 12, although they can get the vaccine as early as age 9. If you're 13 or older and you haven't already been vaccinated, you can still get the vaccine.
It is recommended for all people through the age of 26. Some adults ages 27-45 may get the vaccine after talking with their doctor.
How many shots do I need?
The CDC recommends two doses of HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12 years. The second shot should be given 6-12 months after the first.
If you can get all shots prior to age 15, only two are needed. Three doses are needed if you get the first dose on or after your 15th birthday, and for people with weakened immune systems. The second dose should be given 1-2 months after the first dose. And the third dose should be given 6 months after the first dose.
If I already have HPV, will this vaccine treat it?
If you have a current HPV, the vaccine won't get rid of it. But, if you have one type of HPV, the vaccine may prevent you from getting another type of the virus. There's really no way to treat the virus once you have it, although there are treatments for diseases caused by HPV such as genital warts and genital cancers. This is why you should have regular pelvic exams and Pap tests (if you're female) to screen for cervical cancer.
Does the HPV Vaccine Protect Me for Life?
The vaccine appears to offer long-term protection from HPV. But, even women who have received the vaccine should see their gynecologist regularly for a Pap test to check for cervical cancer. The vaccine doesn’t protect against all HPV types that can cause cervical cancer.
If you missed part of the HPV vaccine series, talk to your doctor about getting the missing dose(s).
Will My Insurance Cover the Cost of the HPV Vaccine?
Most insurance plans cover routine vaccines, which means that if you're in the recommended age group, your insurance should pay for the vaccine. Check with your insurance company just to be sure. If your family doesn't have health insurance or you're on Medicaid, you should be able to get the HPV vaccine for free through the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program.
Is This Vaccination Safe?
Vaccines have to be rigorously tested before they can be widely distributed. The HPV vaccines were tested on thousands of people and shown to be safe before they were released to the public. These vaccines have been used for years now, and experts say the chance of them causing a serious reaction is very slim. The HPV vaccine does not contain mercury or the preservative thimerosal.
If I get the HPV vaccine, is there a chance I could get HPV from the vaccine?
The part of the HPV virus used in both vaccines is inactivated (not live), so it can't cause actual HPV infection.
Are There Any Adults Who Should Not Receive the HPV Vaccine?
Certain people should not get the HPV vaccine or should wait before getting it:
- Anyone who has had a life-threatening allergic reaction to a previous dose of the HPV vaccine
- Anyone who has had a previous life-threatening allergic reaction to an ingredient in the HPV vaccine
- Pregnant women
- Anyone with a moderate or severe illness; people who feel mildly ill may still receive the HPV vaccine.
What Are the HPV Vaccine Ingredients?
The HPV vaccine contains no viruses and is not made from human papillomavirus. The active ingredients in the HPV vaccine are proteins that are similar to those found in the human papillomavirus. Genetically modified bacteria produce the proteins, which are then purified and mixed into a sterile, water-based solution.
What Are the Risks and Side Effects of the HPV Vaccine?
In clinical trials and in real-world use, the HPV vaccine appears to be very safe. More than 40 million doses of the vaccine -- mostly Gardasil, which was approved in 2006 -- have been given in the U.S. Gardasil 9 was approved in 2014 and is now the only HPV vaccine available in the U.S.
From 2006 to 2014, there were about 25,000 reports to the government of HPV vaccine side effects. Over 90% of these were classified as nonserious. The most common side effects of the HPV vaccine are minor:
- About one in 10 people will have a mild fever after the injection.
- About one person in 30 will get itching at the injection site.
- About one in 60 people will experience a moderate fever.
These symptoms go away quickly without treatment. Other mild-to-moderate side effects resulting from the HPV vaccine include:
Severe side effects, or adverse events, are uncommonly reported and have included:
- Blood clots
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy
- Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome)
Government, academic, and other public health investigators could not identify the HPV vaccine as the cause of any severe adverse event. There were 117 deaths as of September 2015, none of which could be directly tied to the HPV vaccine. The conclusion of public health investigators was that the HPV vaccine was unlikely to be the cause of these events. Such events occur at a certain rate in any group of tens of millions of people. The vaccination before each adverse event seemed to be a simple coincidence.