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What is human papillomavirus?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. About 12,000 women in the United States get cervical cancer each year, and most cases are associated with HPV.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), and most infected people don't even realize they have it – or that they're passing it to their sexual partners. There are more than 40 types of HPV, and you can become infected with more than one type.
Within two years of becoming sexually active for the first time, 40 percent of young adults get an HPV infection. It's so commonplace that it's estimated that most sexually active adults will get HPV in their lifetime.
The virus affects both men and women. It's the cause of anal, mouth, throat, penile, vaginal, and other cancers as well as genital warts, which are found in about 1 in 100 sexually active adults in the United States.
"Sexually active" doesn't necessarily mean having sex with lots of people. It simply means that you've had sex with at least one person. And if that person had sex with at least one other person, you're at risk.
You can also have HPV even if you haven't had sex for many years or haven't had sexual contact with an infected person for many years. (Of course, the more people you or your partner has had sex with, the greater your risk.)
About 79 million Americans are infected with the virus, and 14 million more become infected every year. For most, the virus clears from the body naturally within two years.
Unfortunately, there's no routine way to be tested for HPV. The only approved HPV tests available are used to screen women older than 30 for cervical cancer. There's no approved HPV test for men.
Thanks to the HPV vaccine, the rate of infection has dropped by almost two-thirds among teenage girls in the United States. However, only about half of all girls and even fewer boys get vaccinated.
There are two HPV vaccines licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC): Gardasil (last doses will expire in May 2017) and Gardasil 9.
Who can get the HPV vaccines and when?
In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the CDC began recommending the HPV vaccine as a routine vaccination for both girls and boys.
Girls can get Gardasil or Gardasil 9 for protection against cervical, anal, vaginal, and vulvar cancers as well as genital warts. The CDC recommends that girls get the same brand of vaccine for all doses.
Boys can get Gardasil or Gardasil 9 for protection against genital warts and anal cancer.
Recommended doses and ages
- Two doses of either Gardasil or Gardasil 9 are recommended for boys and girls at age 11 or 12. (However, it's possible for children to get vaccinated with two doses anytime between ages 9 and 14 1/2.)
- Three doses are recommended for adolescent girls and women from age 15 to 26 who didn't complete the series before age 15, or who began the series after their 15th birthday.
- Three doses are recommended for adolescent boys and men from age 15 to 21 who didn't complete the series before age 15, or who began the series after their 15th birthday.
Females have a higher risk of HPV than males, which is why the CDC recommends a wider age range for girls and women. Men can also be vaccinated through age 26, but the CDC recommends completing vaccination by age 21.
Recommended dosing schedule
Two dose series: The second shot should be given six to 12 months after the first shot. To complete the two dose series, a child needs to get the first shot before age 14 1/2.
Three dose series: The second shot should be given at least two months after the first shot. The third shot should be given at least six months after the first shot, and at least four months after the second shot. For example, a child who gets the first shot in January would get the second shot in March and the third shot in July.
Why is the vaccine recommended at age 11 or 12?
The vaccine is most effective when given during the preteen years. And vaccinating your child before he or she is sexually active helps ensure protection through young adulthood.
For the HPV vaccine to work best, it's very important to get all shots before being exposed to the virus. It's possible to be infected with HPV the very first time someone has sexual contact with another person.
Doctors recommend giving the first dose of an HPV vaccine to 11- and 12-year-olds at their routine preteen health checkup. HPV vaccines can safely be given at the same time as other preteen vaccines.
A checkup in the preteen years is also a time when adolescents and their parents can talk to their providers about other ways to stay sexually healthy and safe.
People who have had sexual contact before getting all of their doses of an HPV vaccine might still be protected if they weren't infected before being vaccinated with the HPV types included in the vaccine they received.
Are HPV vaccines safe and effective?
The FDA has licensed the vaccines as safe and effective. The vaccines were tested in thousands of people around the world and showed no serious side effects. The CDC says the vaccine can prevent about 21,000 HPV-related cancers each year.
What are the possible side effects?
Common, mild side effects include pain and redness or swelling at the injection site, fever, headache, and nausea. Fainting after being vaccinated has also been reported. As with all vaccines, the CDC and FDA continue to monitor the safety of these vaccines very carefully.
If your child has an adverse reaction to this or any other vaccine, talk to your child's doctor and report it to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.
Can the HPV vaccines prevent other diseases?
Studies have shown that Gardasil and Gardasil 9 prevent cancers of the vagina and vulva, which, like cervical cancer, can be caused by HPV types 16 and 18. Gardasil and Gardasil 9 also protect against anal cancer in males and females.
Published studies have not looked at other health problems that might be prevented by HPV vaccines. It's possible the HPV vaccines could also prevent cancers of the head and neck, and of the penis caused by HPV 16 or 18. Gardasil and Gardasil 9 also might prevent recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP), a rare condition caused by HPV 6 or 11 in which warts grow in the throat.
Why aren't HPV vaccines recommended for people older than 26?
Both vaccines were studied in thousands of people from 9 to 26 years old and found to be safe and effective. The FDA will consider licensing HPV vaccines for people in other age groups if new studies show the vaccines would also be safe and effective.
Is HPV vaccination covered by health insurance?
Most health insurance plans cover recommended vaccines. Some insurance plans don't cover any or all vaccines. Check with your provider to find out whether the cost of the vaccine is covered.
How can my child get an HPV vaccine if I don't have insurance?
The Vaccines for Children (VFC) program helps families of uninsured or underinsured children who might not otherwise have access to vaccines. The program provides vaccines at no cost to doctors who serve eligible children. For more information, visit the CDC's website.
Find more detailed information about the vaccine on the CDC's human papillomavirus page.
See our article on HPV during pregnancy.
Use BabyCenter's Immunization Scheduler to track your child's immunizations.